Angel in the Rubble

Four years after the Cedar wildfire


The compassionate side of humanity emerges in the aftermath of the Cedar Fire. Friends, relatives, and volunteers generously donate their time to help us clean up. This is an outrageously dirty and never-ending task. We haul wheelbarrow loads of twisted metal and the charcoaled remains of our former lives into 40-yard Dumpsters that the county provides. Two women cook lavish dinners that each feed us for almost a week. Others give us money hidden in sympathy cards or at the bottom of boxes filled with donated clothes.

In another week the Disaster Emergency Center is up and running. They take over the old post office building on the far side of town. Kent and I wait in line on that first morning and get our FEMA number. Each department needs its own questionnaires and forms filled out. It's frustrating to fathom the amount of paperwork and phone calls it takes to start your whole life over again.

About a month after the fire, we're finally able to get a small portion of our piddly insurance money, enough to buy two small, used trailers to live in. It's time to move out of my sister's yard. We still have no electrical power, so we purchase a generator from Home Depot and learn to use it. The noise it makes is deafening. We try to run it only a couple of hours in the morning and evening, just enough to charge the battery.

Kent and I consider our options for building, weighing cost, the desire to blend into the environment, as well as questioning what we can live with. I know that at this point I need a house I will love, or someday I may not want to come home. After losing Mom and my house in the same year, I feel fragile.

I've always loved log cabins, and after a bit of research and soul-searching, we find a company that builds with big, dead-standing lodge-pole pine. It's important to us that it be handcrafted, not machine-milled. This outfit agrees to come spend the summer camping out in our yard and eating my trailer cooking in order to erect our structure properly. This alternative style of building is not common knowledge among contractors in Southern California.

In April, I submit our plans to the county building department. I call them after the estimated "ten days max for fire victims to get their plans approved."

"No, they're not ready yet," the phone attendant states.

Three weeks later, I plead, "I need to get these plans through right away. The contractor willing to do my foundation is running out of time to budget for me. We need a house! I lost my mom seven months before the fire, and then we lost everything. I have a teenage daughter I'm really worried about, as she was very close to her grandmother. Our family is living in two tiny trailers, and it's pulling us apart. I really need your help!" The building department duly expresses condolences, then continues with 12 pages of corrections. I wonder if they know how volatile a 16-year-old girl can be when she's so recently lost her favorite person in the world (Gramaset) and then every tangible item she could call her own. Her displaced anger toward me is slashing away at my self-esteem.

Six weeks later, I present the engineer with the plan-change artillery loaded in my backpack: Wite-Out, pens, tape, glue stick, pencil, and eraser. I am a woman on a mission, and I won't take "no" for an answer. This time it works.


July 2004, nine months after the fire, brings both excruciating heat and our log delivery. The foundation and subfloor are ready. The 35-ton crane sets up in our front yard and begins its spiderlike dance. The boom is shortened, and the massive metal mandibles lower down to the tractor trailer, loaded with 2000-pound Tootsie Rolls. Our log crew's work rhythm synchronizes. Amos guides the hook to the log and clamps it in the center, where it can be lifted a few inches to determine whether it's balanced. Merl lends his hands to the teeter-totter, and the process is repeated until the load is centered and tied on. Amos gives the crane operator a thumbs-up, and the dangling stick rises slowly over the oak trees, 50, 60, 80 feet up, where it looks like a toothpick in the sky. It trapezes toward the south mountain before descending to our future cabin. Adam and Justin stand on top of two perpendicular walls, clad in shorts and sandals, arms reaching upward to each end of the incoming log to steer it into its resting place. Bruce is on the ground, giving the crane operator hand signals, not unlike sign language for the deaf. It might as well be, for nothing can be heard over the generator and crane.


By October, I'm spending most every day and evening staining the inside trim. All the nail holes need to be filled with wood putty, sanded, and then two clear coats have to be hand-brushed over it.

One evening, Kent finds me still at it when he gets home from work.

"How much longer are you going to be here?" he asks.

"Oh, I don't know," I respond tiredly. "At least a couple more hours." I point out what I want to accomplish tonight.

I continue painting. Later on, sometime after 9:00 p.m., I hear the door open and smell a wonderful hunger-enticing aroma. Kent appears with plates of baked salmon and salad, along with a bottle of wine. He says that Chance has already gone to bed. We sit on upside-down buckets with the plates in our laps and enjoy one of the most delicious meals I've ever had.

"You know, all this wood is sure interesting to look at," says Kent. "I don't think we'll ever get tired of it."

"Yeah, see this knot here," I point out. "It'll be right over the dining-room table. No telling what our friends will see in it when they sit here drinking wine with us."

Indeed, our comrades have seen a variety of images in this gnarly indentation of the log: an old woman with a long nose, a ship traversing a tumultuous sea, and a prairie dog coming out of its hole. The knots are too numerous to count. They will entertain us for the rest of our lives.

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