USA — On a hillside overlooking Grass Valley Lake near the Lake Arrowhead County Club, the steady beat of hammers echoes on a clear sunny morning.
A year after the devastating Grass Valley Fire swept through the neighborhood, the wooden frames of several homes in various stages of construction stick out above the lake as homeowners race to rebuild before winter starts.
“It’s rebirth,” said Dave Stuart, executive director of Rebuilding Mountain Hearts & Lives, with a smile. “It’s new life.”
More than 500 homes were destroyed or damaged in the Slide and Grass Valley fires that started Oct. 22, 2007. Of those, about 100 homeowners have received permits to rebuild, said Stuart, whose nonprofit organization assists fire victims. At least 15 families already are back in their homes, he said.
The Grass Valley area, where some of the larger, more expensive homes were lost, has been the quickest to recover, accounting for a majority of the rebuilding, said Cheryl Nagy, director of community recovery with Rebuilding Mountain Hearts & Lives.
Jerry and Dottie Thompson, both 75, were the first to return among their neighbors, moving into their 2,000-square-foot, two-story, white and beige-trim house on Merced Lane on Sept. 1.
They evacuated their home of 23 years less than an hour after the early morning fire started, as flames were racing across the Grass Valley hillside and black smoke clouded the sky. When they returned, the house was destroyed.
“It was just ashes,” Dottie Thompson said. “When we came (back) it was like visiting a grave site.”
There was no doubt in their minds that they would rebuild, she said. The neighborhood is a close-knit one, with residents continuing to meet once a week for dinner at Lake Arrowhead Village even after their homes were gone.
A major reason why the Thompsons were able to return soon was that Jerry Thompson, who owned an insurance auditing firm for many years, made sure they were well insured.
“It cost more, but it’s well worth it,” he said.
In the Running Springs area, which has lower-income residents, rebuilding has been slower. Many homeowners have struggled with under-insured properties.
Jeff Gill, senior pastor at Calvary Chapel in Running Springs, said 27 families from his church lost their homes in the Slide Fire. Only six have started rebuilding.
Many were under-insured and are having difficulty qualifying for loans with the current mortgage crisis, he said. Some own smaller, substandard lots that may have to be merged under county policy, which requires homeowners rebuild to current codes.
“There are a lot of homes that simply aren’t going to be rebuilt,” Gill said.
The foreclosure crisis has had one side benefit for some fire victims: allowing them to buy cheaper homes and sell their burned lots, he said.
Frank and Teresa Summers are a couple of months away from finishing work on their five-bedroom Running Springs home. But out of the five houses lost on Easy Street where they live, only one other owner is rebuilding, she said. Two sold their lots to the third homeowner while another neighbor still is dealing with their insurance company.
“A lot of my friends left their homes,” Summers said. “I’d say 50 percent of them bought new homes and they’re not going to rebuild.”
For Summers, 41, the decision was an easy one. She and her husband have lived in the community 12 years and have strong bonds to the area.
“I think for the most part people are sticking together,” she said.
Rebuilding executive director Stuart estimates that 75 percent of homeowners were under-insured by an average of $120,000. His group has tried to help narrow that gap, offering grants of $40,000 to $75,000.
The recovery rate already has outpaced that of the 2003 Old Fire in Cedar Glen, where only about three-dozen homes have been rebuilt out of 323 destroyed. One major difference is that Cedar Glen has unique road and water infrastructure problems that have delayed recovery, San Bernardino County officials said.
The county also learned from past mistakes and put together a debris clean-up program that ensured properties burned last year were cleared of crumbling foundations, felled trees and other fire debris.
Modeled after a similar program used in Lake Tahoe after the Angora Fire of June 2007, it required property owners to either use county-hired contractors to clean up their lots or do it on their own.
The county began the program with hazardous waste removal last November and cleared the last of the properties in September, said Rex Richardson, spokesman for the county’s solid waste department.
“We feel it’s a success,” he said.
The program included erosion control measures to guard against possible rock or mud slides with hydroseeding on some hillsides and others covered with burlap bags.
Stuart praised the county efforts.
“They’ve done a good job,” he said. “It’s a night and day what the county has done for the 2007 people versus what was done in 2003.”
Despite the obstacles they faced, homeowners say it’s the sense of community in the mountains that motivates them to return.
Dottie Thompson was reminded of that her first night home, when she went out to her deck to look at the view down the hill, which once was full of trees but is now clear. A neighbor whose house had survived the fire saw her from below and shouted, “Welcome home,” she recalls with a smile.
“We have wonderful neighbors,” Dottie said. “That’s one of the reason we decided to rebuild.”