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

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.

Their bonds were friendly but loose. There were annual block parties and occasional potlucks, where everyone enjoyed Mona Kaul's chicken curry or some of the wonderful wines from the 600-bottle collection Gordon Wood had carefully amassed. But no one's son grew up to marry the girl next door, no petty complaints flared into litigious feuds. No one vacationed together. If there were any tragedies, they were kept private.

Until the fire.

Ed Phillips is 67, the divorced guy living alone, the one the kids called Spooky Man, who rarely said a word to his neighbors, but now he can't stop talking. How did they wake up that night? he wants to know. Who's going to rebuild; who's going to leave? He tells his own story as tragicomedy, interspersing wry one-liners with searing philosophical observations. He wears a yellow T-shirt with a quote from "Romeo and Juliet": "These violent delights have violent ends."

He wonders aloud, half-jokingly, why Tiffany Gilliland didn't bang on his door, too, that night.

"Did you hear our horns honking?" she asks. Hot embers were flying, the smoke grew too thick to see through, and car horns were all the neighbors could think of as they fled that night, to warn the others. The intense heat turned plastic taillights molten as they drove away.

"I was about to be cooked," Phillips tells them, making his neighbors guffaw as he confesses that his enduring image of that hellish night isn't of his house in flames but of another neighbor running out of her house in bra and underwear. He was too embarrassed when he saw her family return to go up and ask how they were.

After inching his car down the street to safety, Phillips said, his exhilaration and relief instantly turned to guilt: What if the couple in their 80s who live next door didn't get out? He turned around, coughing and gagging, and drove back through the wall of smoke. "I'm going to be a hero!" he remembers thinking. By then the houses were all in flames, and there were no doors to knock on. Spooky Man retreated and escaped a second time, alone.

"You know, your first thought is just of yourself, to get out," he admits out loud. "That's probably the frailty of being human."

The elderly couple are fine, everyone has learned; they're the only ones so far who have expressed any reluctance to rebuild here. Phillips is on the fence. He has always dreamed of having a gypsy year, and as a self-employed engineering consultant he could go anywhere, really: "Paris, or Brussels, or Krakow, Poland. I like southern Germany. Munich would be nice." He has two grandkids in Fairfax, Va.; maybe he'll go stay there "until my daughter kicks me out." The ex he divorced 20 years ago has been kind enough to take him in for now, "and I'm driving her crazy already." But maybe there's a reason to stay here, too, he ponders. Phillips trots off down the cul-de-sac, eager to catch up with more of the neighbors drifting back. Gordon Wood chuckles and shakes his head in amazement.

"I didn't even know he spoke!"

"We never really knew him," Tiffany Gilliland agrees. "He's hilarious!"

An SUV full of looky-loos drives slowly through the cul-de-sac, and a teenage girl rolls down her window and calls out:

"Did your house just get burned down?"

"Yes," Tiffany answers guardedly.

"Do you want a cupcake?"

The back of the SUV is opened to reveal boxes of blue- and pink-frosted cupcakes. "We baked one hundred of them," announces one of the 8-year-old twin girls in the back seat. Tiffany and Marilyn each take a few, oohing and aahing with exaggerated gratitude. People just want to do something for them, the survivors have learned this past week. A friend of the Woods' who was burned out in the last California firestorm, in 2003, told him strangers were still leaving things on his front porch a year later. "They'd open the door, and there'd be a lawnmower," Wood says.

Everyone seems drawn to Corazon Place now. President Bush stopped by the other day, before the evacuated neighborhood was reopened. A fire chief visits to ask if he can film the destruction for a training video. Former homeowners who moved away drop by to gape and offer condolences to their old neighbors. Church groups drop off screens like those archaeologists use, so people can sift through the rubble. Marilyn Wood retrieved a small loose diamond from a heart pendant her husband had given her for their anniversary. "It was meant to be" is the only way she can explain her discovery.

Even as firefighters kept battling Saturday to contain nine other fires still raging in Southern California, Kirt and Tiffany Gilliland brought their children back to see the destruction and pick through the heaps of debris. Tiffany is surprised by how brave 11-year-old Hailey and 14-year-old Tyler have been about losing everything they own, including two beloved cats that Tiffany keeps hoping might miraculously appear.

Theirs was the house where people would sit in the driveway chatting on summer nights. The doors were always open, the swimming pool always full of splashing kids. They'd just finished remodeling the first floor; there was a game room with a casino. At Halloween, the wives would dress up, build a bonfire, grab some wine from Tiffany's or Marilyn's cellar, and party while they handed out candy.

"Nowadays, neighbors pretty much hit the button and drive into their garages, and that's it," Kirt Gilliland says. He wanted more for his family, a place where they could connect. "That's what we wanted when we bought the house seven years ago," he says of Corazon Place. "And we'll rebuild that again."

Ashok Kaul and his wife were halfway to India on a business trip when the fire destroyed the house they had just spent $250,000 remodeling. They weren't there to grab photo albums or heirlooms in a mad rush. His grown daughter keeps telling him now, "Dad, the memories are in your mind, in your heart, not on a piece of paper." He feels profoundly grateful when Gordon Wood comes over with a length of yellow police tape to string across what used to be his driveway, to cordon off what is his.

They're all scattered now, living with friends or relatives or in hotels or their RVs. They share tips about scarce rental homes in the area, and collectively curse the gougers who double the rent because dozens of fire refugees are vying for the same place.

The neighbors don't spend much time comparing lists of what was lost. The women waggle empty hands at one another and wish aloud they could find their wedding rings. The men take note of which cars survived. The children run up with molten treasures, such as misshapen coins or the ceramic dinner plates glued together by melted glaze. Gordon Wood momentarily laments his 600 bottles of wine. There were some fine vintages in that collection, ones he never got to taste. Maybe that was this fire's lesson, he thinks: that the rarest gifts are best savored in the moment.

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