Fire on our Mountain

I’ve been traveling for work and pleasure, and finally returned to our family home on Lake Cuyamaca. It’s an early fire season, and it seems earlier each year. When I taught biology, I joked that California has four seasons—winter, spring, summer, and fire. So, it’s mid-July with four uncontrolled burns in Southern California. When we bought this house, a rebuild after the Cedar Fire, we knew what we were getting into. We knowingly, willingly risked life on wilderness edge at whim of Mother Nature. Our house is surrounded by Cuyamaca State Park and Cleveland National Forest—and prime forest ready for a burn. Native Americans used fire to care for their lands. They understood. Our government is learning.

In fall 2003 when the Cedar Fire roared through San Diego County, we lived in the Monterey-Salinas area (another fire-prone area), and our oldest daughter enrolled as a freshman at San Diego State. We were new to this—sending kids off to college—and secretly delighted that Meghan visited her extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins on weekends. That November, a raging fire changed everything for thousands of San Diegans. Initially, SDSU cautioned students to stay inside as the fire hopped, skipped, and jumped canyons towards Lakeside and Santee, close enough to campus you could taste it. Ash swirled in the air coating cars and sidewalks, landing on lips and tongues of beachgoers miles away. Meghan’s grandparents picked her up, so she could escape the smoke. By the third day of burning, fingertips of flames licked nearby hills and Interstates 15 and 805. SDSU cancelled classes for the rest of the week.

A flare set by a lost hiker created the conflagration that took everything in its path. In the beginning, the Santa Ana winds pushed the inferno towards the Pacific Ocean, racing through dry scrub, sage, and Manzanita, scaling the tops of Eucalyptus trees. Then winds shifted, and the shore breeze blew hot embers in the opposite direction. That’s when our area of Cuyamaca went up in flames. It was a perfect firestorm of events—where nature and people converged in not a good way.  Under scant resources, fire agencies protected the town of Julian, home of 2600+ people; meanwhile, Mount Cuyamaca, Middle Peak, and our mountain, North Peak burned.  In the aftermath, amid the ashes of homes, once stately Sugar Pines, and wildlife, people pointed fingers of accusation. Over a decade later, people in the backcountry still point fingers.

On our unpaved fire road, Lower North Peak Way, just four of twenty houses survived the fire. If I hike further up the mountain, more empty plots with brick chimneys, china remnants, broken bits of glass, twisted metal exist than do rebuilds. Our house is in fact a rebuild. The people before us completed the house within five years of the fire, but walked away at the peak of the “real estate bubble”—another tragedy of circumstances.

During fall and winter, when black oaks are dormant, it’s difficult to tell a viable oak from a scarred skeleton of an oak. Some oaks wear a skirt of charred bark, yet leaf out in spring. This year, black oaks and pines that sprouted after the Cedar Fire stretch as tall as the dead trees. The forest is returning, and with it, wildlife. I’ve seen mountain lion scat and tracks, as well as raccoon, deer, coyote, bobcat. Scrub jays fight over the Supreme bird feed I buy from the BirdWatcher Store in town.  And, this spring, a resident bald eagle from neighboring Lake Cuyamaca perched on a utility pole on our property. I saw a glistening from our deck, grabbed binoculars, and sure enough, there he or she roosted. With each turn of its head, light beamed off its head–a signal that all is well.

 

Where to Begin

Between stripping, nailing, painting, and caulking, Dale “squeegeed” the garage of the torrents of water that flowed down our practically precipitous driveway, and just one more problem we faced.

Dale’s work on our mountain home—where to start—on a place that sat untouched for seven years? Seven seasons of uncontrolled plant growth, seven years of hurricane winds that stripped paint and battered siding, seven years of rodents and spiders who made a home in our home, seven seasons of neglect inside and out made for an extensive list.

Dale first tackled the inside painting. This, and the removal of the red, paisley flocked wallpaper a la 1960s, kept him busy while I prepped our Indian Springs home.  A golden knotty pine framed doors and windows of the entire house and our choice of “Open Arms”—a soft, mellow yellow, almost a butter color, blended deliciously. I was relieved when I received the picture, after the fact, of the finished vaulted ceiling and Dale in complete climbing gear, minus the helmet which he claimed he removed to take the picture.

Dale in climbing gear

Before we could enjoy this house, the basics, e.g. solar panels for electricity required priming. While workers installed a new inverter, Dale focused on the inside of the house. The showers and tubs drained slowly or not at all, so plumbers labored on that—basically, calcium and other mineral deposits clogged the house after years of disuse. A “water softener” guy worked on the water softener. A “propane” guy restored and refueled the gas tank. Our purchase of the deluxe home warranty paid off with the dishwasher and oven, two of the many appliances that hadn’t been tested or used in years, and needed fixing.

Finally, November can be an Indian summer of scorching temperatures and raging wildfires, or as happened last year, an El Nino of rains and floods. A flood, not one or two, more like five floods, soaked the boxes that survived the trek from Indian Springs to our mountain home. Between stripping, nailing, painting, and caulking, Dale “squeegeed” the garage of the torrents of water that flowed down our practically precipitous driveway, and just one more problem we faced.

 

 

Escrow Times Two

Once we decided to move, we packed with a mission—daily Goodwill donations of books we read or never will, “beloved junk” including vases from flowers long gone and Mason jars of assorted sizes delivered to neighbors, texts sold back to CSU Monterey Bay for much less than we paid. My arbitrary goal—packing four boxes/day quickly added to twenty boxes stacked high in the garage—making our house seem spacious and the garage like a hoarder’s.

We worked with two government agencies, Fannie Mae since the house we were buying was a foreclosure, and the Veteran’s Administration for Dale’s V.A . Loan and both followed strict time lines and rules. Of course, the timelines and rules applied only to us, the buyers, since we’d submit immediately then wait days for any response. Buying a foreclosure and pursuing a veterans’ loan are not for the faint of heart.  Piles of documents multiplied over our dining room table; weekly extensions meant the notary became like our extended family.

In the meantime, we listed our Indian Springs home with Kevin and Linda who scheduled a showing day for realtors. The professional photographer made our house look so good. Shoot, why were we moving? After one day on the Multiple Listing Service, a steady parade of “lookee-loos” or “wanna-buys” drove past our home. Exactly what we would have done had we been in Julian, but we were 600 miles away. Open Houses seem passé these days, since serious buyers shop the internet. Five days later, we received a full-price offer and spare back-up offers. A huge relief for us, two retired teachers–not  independently wealthy–but that’s being redundant. No sooner had escrow opened on our Indian Springs home, when a thief took advantage of the listing and stole our new swing from the front yard. We bought that swing three months earlier, with plans for a “little library” and the hope that neighbors would feel welcome to sit and read. I felt sad and the theft left a bitter taste for the broader community, not our neighbors, but for the outsiders who knew we were moving—such a sad, sad way to leave.

Escrow closed on our mountain home mid-November, and twelve hours later, Dale drove ten hours in a truck with tools, his bike, random pieces of furniture, the dog, and towing his car. We were doing this! I remained in Indian Springs to finish packing, while he painted our new/used house. First task was picking the color, which we did simultaneously at two different Ace Hardware Stores, he in Alpine, me in Salinas. “Open Arms”—the easy favorite for the interior walls and he scaled the three stories, wearing climbing gear to reach the vaulted ceiling.

Dale “glamped” at our five star mountain home on an inflatable mattress, with a lamp, a radio, no TV, no computer.  His nightly activity—watching stars or burning of Middle Peak.  The prescribed burn on Middle Peak gave Dale a taste, literally, of what the Cedar Fire must have been like, as our house faced the scorched facade of the mountain. Fire trucks from different agencies—Rancho Cuyamaca State Park, Julian Fire, and Cal Fire monitored what most of California needs, fire. Scrub vegetation thrives on a good burn every few years. The Native Americans knew this, and managed their lands, with burns to clean out underbrush and expose soils. As I told my biology students, California has four seasons: winter, spring, summer, fire.

 

Memories of What’s Left Behind

How I wished we’d had money to pay for pool resurfacing and tile or better heater and pool pump, but life is choices and seeing Sam graduate with little college debt was the right decision for us. True to life’s irony, the pool contractor arrived for the pool redo on the official start of escrow on the mountain home.

Before launching into our “new/used” home, I want to remember what we left behind. The house on Indian Springs Road was supposed to be our forever home, the home where our children, grandchildren, and future great-grandchildren came for visits. Like in The Father of the Bride, our daughters’ wedding reception could be held in the backyard. In our retirement, we’d have raucous pool parties or quiet dinners enjoying the sunset on the surrounding hills. Our children, who learned to swim in the pool, could teach their children and they theirs. The fruit trees, the pomegranate, peach, and almond trees, we planted these past few years might yield bountiful harvests, and I’d make fancy jams. The play set in the far corner of the yard, the one Dale built on Christmas twenty-five years ago, would delight our grandchildren. These were my dreams, but life has a funny way with dreams and plans. Sometimes dreams come true, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes life presents a better scenario than ever imagined.

Our adult children flew our feathered nest, settling in San Diego, circling home once/year. They landed near their grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. At visits to my parents’ home, my girls slept in my old bedroom. So as our daughters embraced San Diego, it looked less likely they’d return to Salinas. My dreams, after all, were my dreams not theirs. Dale and I decided that a move south made sense, whether or not we closed on the mountain house, we were at peace. Sad at leaving our home, our friends, Indian Springs neighborhood, family at St. Joseph’s, but at peace.

Now, we turned to prep our Indian Springs house—this house needed to look as good as our loving feelings for it—but in reality we had neglected so much.  We ignored floors, foundation repair, exterior painting, and pool repair—all “big ticket” items, paying college tuition instead. How I wished we’d had money to pay for pool resurfacing and tile or better heater and pool pump, but life is choices and seeing Sam graduate with little college debt was the right decision for us. True to life’s irony, the pool contractor arrived for the pool redo on the official start of escrow on the mountain home.

When our kids were little, they swam in that little pool with no care about blue lips and toes, uncontrollable shivers, and green water, when chlorine levels dipped and algae bloomed. Our kids and their friends learned to swim in the tiny pool, not much bigger than a truck. Everything being relative, this was a “bare bones” pool installed by the previous owner. When we first moved there, the pool deck was a random collection of pavers connected by weeds.  A patchwork deck was an eyesore, a cosmetic problem, while the lack of a pool fence was a safety issue. The Monterey Fence Company heard my frantic cry, “I have two small children, and we’re moving in a week.”  Two days later, the workers completed the fence, but—blame it on my years of lifeguarding—we needed more–an alarm, the floating kind, the gate kind, the impenetrable kind, the kind with a direct link to the fire department. We settled on a gate alarm, plus an additional one for the back door. Ear piercing and louder than a bank’s burglar alarm, a screech warned everyone within a five-mile radius that the gate was open. It cost us over $500, a stretch for us, but it was the best $500 ever spent.

One Sunday afternoon five months after we moved in, and not fully unpacked, we threw a pool party. Parents partied inside, kids played outside. A few minutes into the party, the gate alarm sounded. One of the older kids managed to open the pool gate, but couldn’t shut off the alarm. Within seconds, parents tore out the backdoor to the bewilderment of the ten children, five under the age of five and non-swimmers. In that moment, the alarm paid for itself. Birthdays, graduations, retirements—twenty-five years of pool parties—and, thankfully, celebrations without accidents.

Habitat for Humanity and the Bedroom Set

Okay, this now involved work. Dale called local truck rentals, and the next day we loaded everything home to Salinas. Even with the $300 cost of the truck rental, this bedroom set was worth ten times that.

Funny thing is we moved everything, all five pieces, back to San Diego three months later.

Our last remodel was the kitchen of our Monterey-Salinas home. We chose the contractor, marked off the five-six week stretch when we’d live on fast food (hard for me since I love to cook), and thanks to friend, Cindy who’d survived the same experience, got tips on expediting the entire process. Her first suggestion was to pick out appliances, sink, flooring, etc. ahead of time and store them in the garage, so the contractor wouldn’t need to wait on materials. We picked tile, flooring, countertops; we kept our refrigerator and dishwasher to reduce costs. Cindy’s second suggestion of shopping at Habitat for Humanity helped us stay under cost and on time!

Habitat for Humanity is a win for everyone, especially the environment. The “restore” carries appliances, furniture, building materials, e.g. lighting fixtures, plumbing parts, you name it. Contractors drop off useable materials, and other contractors pick them up. Homeowners shop as well.  Some pieces are “gently used” or “pre-owned,” while other pieces are brand new, extras donated by builders. Little lands in the landfill, meanwhile proceeds benefit the homeless, who under supervision of Habitat for Humanity workers build their own houses. I picked a double convection oven for $250 and brand new, deluxe microwave for $25. We also purchased heavy oak double front doors for $400 total. Such steals.

On one of many trips to San Diego, we visited the local Habitat for Humanity restore store. This time we searched for furniture for our daughter’s small condo, and scored a mahogany bookcase with beautiful trim and an even more beautiful price of $50. As we perused the warehouse, a new arrival wrapped in plastic rested against a wall.  A Mission style, stunning, solid oak five piece bedroom set. The set included king-sized bed frame, large armoire with mirror, and two smaller side pieces in a light oak that coordinated perfectly with our Mission style house in Salinas. The price? Crazy amazing of $700 for all the five pieces. Total. I whipped out my checkbook, since I know about shopping at Habitat. Things come and go pretty quickly.

Clerk—“Today all furniture is half off. Lucky you.”

Me—“I get all this for $350?” I’m all about a bargain, but not at short-changing a non-profit. I couldn’t believe my fortune.

Clerk—“But you have to get this stuff outta here by tomorrow, since we have more shipments coming in.”

Okay, this now involved work. Dale called local truck rentals, and the next day we loaded everything home to Salinas. Even with the $300 cost of the truck rental, this bedroom set was worth ten times that.

Funny thing is we moved everything, all five pieces, back to San Diego three months later.

Hiking the Paper Trail

Arriving home, we faced the daunting task of dismantling 26 years of living in the same house. I looked around—so many memories and started to cry.
Tell me again, why were we moving?

The ten-hour drive back to Monterey-Salinas provided ample time to talk and plan. If Dale and I were buying, we needed to act quickly. Julian Realtor Dennis F. explained we had 24 hours to decide on the house or risk losing it. The window of opportunity, per Fanny Mae rules on foreclosures, stipulated first bids went to buyers who would reside in the house, followed by bids of investors, who could use the property in other ways. Monday at noon was our deadline. The list price of $440,000 was tenable for us, and a perfect retirement place, i.e. no mortgage, but contingent on proceeds from the sale of our other home. We discussed this with Dennis. Thank goodness realtors work on weekends.
Us—“Do you know how many offers are in place?”
Dennis—“There is only one I know of.”
Us—“Should we bid over the list price?”
Dennis—“Depends on how much you want this place.”
Then Dennis recommended “bidding a little over,” yet in line with the price per square foot of homes in the area. I saw the look on Dale’s face and knew he was mentally calculating the cost. Neither of us are gamblers, but this time we would be. I proposed $10,000 over, Dale pushed for $20,000, we settled in the middle. We figured we had little to lose in this “bidding war.” No, actually, worst case would be we get the Julian house, don’t sell our other home, and have to carry two mortgages. That would suck. Did I mention we are retired high school teachers and not millionaires?
Next phone call en route to Salinas was to our friend and Coldwell Banker Realtor, Linda M. Linda and I shared pregnancies and babies 31 years earlier. Back then (and sadly, even now), there was no pregnancy leave, we accrued “sick leave.” So, while we strolled with our new babies, we explored options as new moms who needed additional income. Linda left banking to pursue real estate; I stayed in teaching. I knew Linda was successful; her smiling face appeared in papers and on grocery shopping carts. We agreed to meet at our house on Tues. In the meantime, I posted a picture of our house for sale by owner, and asked friends to share on Facebook and other social media. Since we bought and sold our last homes by ourselves, we figured we could do it again, and maybe, just maybe, we’d get an offer before we signed a contract with Linda.
Arriving home, we faced the daunting task of dismantling 26 years of living in the same house. I looked around—so many memories and started to cry.
Tell me again, why were we moving?

 

 

Like on “House Hunters”

Dennis checked the Zillow listing and we agreed to rendezvous at the Lake Restaurant. The house listed in foreclosure, with 24 hours left before Fanny May released the home to investors. Dennis drove the steep–very steep–road, with a steep–very, very steep driveway that led to the house, followed by a steep stairway to the front door. The realtor lock-box wouldn’t open with the code, so Dale walked around looking for another way in and found the side door unlocked.

On a whim (like how our youngest daughter came to be), my husband Dale and I drove to Julian. We were visiting from the Monterey-Salinas area, and spending time with our new grand baby in San Diego. That Thursday in September, we drove to the mountains, an hour drive from the city. Fall was in the air (which in San Diego means air temp was low 70s, water temp low 60s), it was apple season, and the mountains were calling.

I hadn’t seen the town of Julian since the 1970s, when as a break from studies at U.C. San Diego, I traveled with friends. During summer vacations in college, I also lifeguarded at the Girl Scout camp in the mountains, but four decades passed since I’d visited. We strolled the half-mile block of the downtown area, perused the antique shops, sampled spicy snacks at the local cider shop, read listings of houses for sale posted on the window of Julian Realty. That did it. The prices in the mountains spanned the spectrum from million dollar homes to cheap lots (under 30 G). Our dream of buying a place in the mountains could happen here, yet until that point, moving was not on our radar.

We lived in a suburban home of 4 bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths, in the central coast of California, perfect for our family of 5, but now we were 2 (not counting the furry children). We hoped the rooms would refill with children and grandchildren, but that happened only once or twice/year at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Most of the family was in San Diego and when they visited places, it wasn’t to the Central Coast; they expected us to come there.

Dennis F., owner of Julian Realty, provided us a list of homes. While I read the summaries and checked out the stats for the homes in our price range, Dale checked Zillow. There it was–our future home.

“Can we see this one?”

Dennis checked the Zillow listing and we agreed to rendezvous at the Lake Restaurant. The house listed in foreclosure, with 24 hours left before Fanny May released the home to investors. Dennis drove the steep–very steep–road, with a steep–very, very steep driveway that led to the house, followed by a steep stairway to the front door. The realtor lock-box wouldn’t open with the code, so Dale walked around looking for another way in and found the side door unlocked.

A quirky, but stunning floor-plan, with large picture windows facing the right directions to capture Lake Cuyamaca to the beaches–we entered the first floor of sleeping quarters. Up stairs (yes, more stairs) led to the living room, kitchen, dining room, sun room, with views that spanned from Catalina Island to the San Diego Harbor and downtown. Warm wood floors, black granite counters, stainless steel appliances in place, but missing vanities and some light fixtures–all cosmetic work that we could do. The interior paint, a faded camouflage color, covered the walls, and the master included flocked paisley wallpaper I hadn’t seen since childhood. The exterior paint mirrored the interior, a light gray-green, sort of faded avocado from the 1960s–who chose these colors, anyway? I could see why this listing “sat” on the market for a few years.

We left the foreclosure, contemplating the views, as Dennis showed us two other homes in different parts of Julian. One house in Harrison Park, at the end of a meandering one lane road that stretched for miles, had an even “quirkier” floor plan, as though designed like the Winchester House with rooms randomly added here and there. The other, a desperate fixer-upper in Pine Hills necessitated major remodeling, and I felt tired just thinking about how much. Both homes required more work than the foreclosure.

We left Dennis and went for pie–that’s what people do in Julian. So, over pie and coffee, albeit on the show it’s wine and appetizers, we discussed the three houses. Selling our home in Monterey-Salinas would enable us buy outright in Julian. No mortgage, such a sweet idea. Listing the pros and cons of each house, and minutes later, the pie wasn’t finished, but we knew. Even if we have a few years in that crazy view house, that was the one for us.