Cars gutted by flame, tangles of downed power lines and lone chimneys atop smoldering ruins are familiar sights in Crest, the small mountain community just southeast of El Cajon where more than 200 homes were ravaged by the Cedar fire. Many were once beautiful estates boasting spectacular views of Harbison Canyon and El Capitan Mountain. However, the flames that hopscotched throughout the community Oct. 26 gave little consideration to property size or value. Except for a handful of untouched structures, little of Crest remains; the devastation is biblical and complete.
At the Crest Sky View Lodge South trailer park, where 24 of Crest's most humble homes were razed, the totality of the loss is immediately apparent. A blackened refrigerator hull and the wiry innards of a mattress are the only readily identifiable objects in the mound of soot and cinder that the Chavarin family once called home.
Standing amid the smoldering rubble you can see across eight other lots, the former homes of friends and neighbors. It's a football field-sized area of total destruction and chaos, strewn with twisted patio furniture, melted chain-link fence, buckled steel trailer frames, car husks and chicken coops complete with charbroiled inhabitants. In the middle of it all stands a leafless tree of indeterminable species, its trunk and limbs turned eerily metallic by the intense heat, raging flames and ash. It presides over the ruins like the skeletal hand of death.
A few ax-wielding firefighters amble by, looking for hotspots. Dressed entirely in bright yellow uniforms they look like cartoons against the scorched backdrop. Turning to walk away, one firefighter says, “There's nothing here left to burn.”
Sifting through the ashes of her bedroom, Thelma Chavarin, finds most of her jewelry but her efforts seem ultimately meaningless. The sapphires from her bracelet are black and her pearl necklace, both pieces gifts from her husband, has been reduced to beads of ash. Individual sobs escape from her white surgical mask while she uncovers the memories of her life, now reduced to meaningless melted junk. Her eyes, wide with incomprehension and tinged red at their rims from the thick cloud of smoke that hangs over the area, convey the shock. She moves and talks with the dazed numbness of a trauma victim, but she manages to keep her composure, even finding bits of humor among the debris.
“It probably wasn't real,” Thelma says with a giggle as she crumbles the pearls between her fingers.
On another side of the pile, her husband, Alex Chavarin, says little, focusing all of his energy on recovering his tools. He uses the head of a pick-ax to pry open the fused drawers of his tool chest and fish out scorched sockets and pliers. While most of his tools are intact, their hinges and joints have seized, leaving most of them worthless, not that in working condition they could ever help him rebuild what was.
The Chavarins are screwed-at the very least, they have lost everything. In addition to a handful of salvageable items, the worldly possessions of this family of seven include just two cars and a single change of clothes each. Visiting family in Mexico with their five children when the fire started on Sunday, they never had a chance to pack their belongings or attempt to save their home. They had no idea what to expect when they returned two days later and were astonished to discover Alex's pickup truck, slightly melted around the edges, but otherwise undamaged.
Although Alex, an alarm technician, and Thelma, a deli worker at Vons, were doing well, better than most of their neighbors, they didn't have a lot to lose. Still, they were one of the few families in the park who actually owned their trailer. It's one of the reasons their situation hurts more than their neighbors, who may have lost possessions but only rented their trailer homes. Adding to their misery, the Chavarin home was uninsured.
“There is no particular reason why we didn't have insurance,” Thelma says. “You just never think it's going to happen to you.”
But the lack of insurance isn't what gets Thelma really upset. It's the thought of the treasures reduced to carbon-the photos, home movies, piñatas from birthday parties past and the footprints of her newborn babies-that make her cry.
“To me that stuff is very important,” she says. “But our friends and neighbors are safe, that's what counts. The material things can be replaced”
The couple, both in their early 30s, is strangely optimistic despite being homeless and uninsured. “We are still young,” Thelma says. “We will make it.” With five kids and bills to pay, it must be the shock talking.
But less than one week later, with the initial distress dissipated and all her wits about her, Thelma is still upbeat. She is trying not to think about what she lost, focusing instead on what's ahead.
After staying with friends for the first few nights, her family found a temporary apartment. In the past week the Chavarins have transferred their energies from recovering possessions to rebuilding their lives, receiving plenty of help from friends, coworkers and strangers along the way.
“There are a lot of people wanting to help,” she says. “There are even people who don't even know you who are ready to help. Everyone is really wonderful.”
Charity groups have provided her and her family with the food and clothes they need to survive and Thelma says she hopes to hear back from FEMA and other relief agencies this week. In the meantime, she has started dealing with some of the more trivial matters that go along with losing everything, like making arrangements with utility companies and ordering old tax returns from the IRS.
So far the Chavarins say they have had positive experiences with the established aid organizations but they are having trouble navigating other avenues of assistance. While she is aware that millions of dollars have been raised to help fire victims like her family, she isn't quite sure when, where or how to access it. It's something she plans to find out in the next day or two.
“It's really hard when you're running here and there with little kids and trying to figure all this out,” she says pointing out that on any given day, several agencies are writing checks at various locations around San Diego County. “You just can't be everywhere.”
The next months will bring plenty of tough decisions for the Chavarins. They are still deciding whether or not to return to Crest or relocate. Thelma says she likes the area and the people and wants to keep her children in Crest schools, but isn't sure how things will end up.
“I think this is a good opportunity to move on,” she says. “It's a good time to get a better life for ourselves. I'm waiting for a phone call from FEMA and from there we will see what happens.'