In One Cul-De-Sac, Neighbors Are All That's Left

Tiffany Gilliland sifts through what is left of her house in Rancho Bernardo.
Tiffany Gilliland sifts through what is left of her house in Rancho Bernardo. (By Jonathan Alcorn For The Washington Post)
By Tamara Jones
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 28, 2007

SAN DIEGO, Oct. 27 -- The street named for the human heart is half here, half gone.

The bottom of Corazon Place is still a pretty block of expensive Mediterranean houses with snowy oleanders abloom in green yards. But at the top of Corazon, the dozen dwellings in the cul-de-sac are ashen ruins on a black hilltop -- a sad fraction of the 1,700 homes destroyed when wildfires raged across half a million acres, killing seven people.

Six days after one of the worst wildfires in California memory jumped the freeway below and raced up the dry chaparral, setting palm trees and rooftops ablaze, the people who lived in this small circle are all accounted for, shaken but safe.

There's nothing visible here to salvage, really, but the survivors keep coming back anyway, to gather in their lost street or sit on their sooty curbs. They joke and banter, gossip and debate, hug and cry and listen to one another's stories -- because that's what they've always done, what neighbors do, and neighbors are all that's left of this place.

Tiffany Gilliland, 39, huddles with Gordon and Marilyn Wood, three rubble heaps down from what used to be the Gillilands' six-level terraced house. She peers through designer sunglasses at her weary friends. "I swear I'll never forget your face that night," she tells Marilyn.

"I'll never forget yours, either. I have nightmares about it. I shake when it starts to get dark out, and I wake Gord up every half-hour to ask if the house is on fire."

Gilliland had been driving home at nearly 4 a.m. Monday after spending the night before evacuating her daughter's horse from a rural boarding stable to a livestock shelter on the coast. Gilliland used to be an emergency medical technician, and on her way home, a friend at the fire department had called her cellphone to warn her that shifting Santa Ana winds were pushing an out-of-control brush fire toward her Rancho Bernardo neighborhood.

Corazon Place was pitch-dark when she pulled into her driveway and went inside to round up her husband, their two kids and a menagerie of pets. Five minutes later, Gilliland recalls, orange flames were roaring up the hill onto the Woods' roof across the street. Their house was dark, their two cars in the driveway. She ran over and pounded on the door, screaming. She was about to break a window to get inside when Marilyn appeared.

"I still remember the panic in your voice," Gilliland tells her neighbor now. "I still see your frames silhouetted against the fire. And that palm tree." She nods down the block to the skeletal tree towering over Corazon Place with blackened fronds. They were all so afraid it would fall flaming into the street that night, trapping them as they tried to drive through the thick smoke to safety. Marilyn nods and pulls out a pack of cigarettes, fingers shaking. She looks at Gilliland sheepishly, and her neighbor offers a sympathetic smile, knowing that Marilyn had just given up the habit, had been so proud of her four days without a puff, when the fire came.

"Now's not the time to try to quit," Gilliland says kindly.

Across the street, Ashok Kaul abandons his debris to join the neighbors. "This is why I'm going to move back," he declares. Even before the insurance adjusters show up, people have been making their plans to rebuild here, talking about getting group bids from contractors, polling each other for reassurances that their old, familiar lives will someday resume. Kaul repeats what his friend Gordon Wood told him earlier: "We want to all stay together."

Corazon Place was a mix -- original owners going back 25, 30 years and newcomers; empty-nesters and young professionals; social gadflies and quiet loners. They were an international bunch, too, with families from Canada, India, the Philippines, plus the elderly Frenchwoman with her beautiful art collection.

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