USA — They are missing teeth in what was a gleaming smile of mansions lining a hilltop in Yorba Linda. Six burned-out husks, the facade of the one owned by Jeff Rindskopf looking like the ruins of a Tuscan villa.
“That was my view,” he said, holding a snapshot of flowers in his backyard overlooking Chino Hills State Park.
He flips through the water-damaged photos. Portraits of his daughters. Family vacations. Snapshots of relatives and friends. Photos of a wildfire burning across the valley in Anaheim Hills, a safe distance away.
They were found in the garage, in a suitcase stored and half-forgotten. Now they are about the only thing that was salvaged from the mess.
“It’s a treasure,” Rindskopf said.
The price that is paid to live here in the self-proclaimed “Land of Gracious Living” extends far beyond the close of escrow. The bill comes due when nature calls your bluff, when the hot wind mixes with the dry brush that surrounds Yorba Linda, and its expensive homes become little more than a stack of logs in a huge fireplace.
The city’s numbers tell its story. Average household income: $135,000 and change. Miles of maintained horse trails: 100. Number of churches: 26. Children on soccer teams: 3,493. Population: about 68,000. Growth since 1990: 28%
Homes destroyed last weekend: 118.
Yorba Linda’s entire population was less than that in 1913 when its most famous resident, Richard M. Nixon, was born here. But the land rush had begun.
“This land must be seen to be appreciated,” a real estate ad in The Times exclaimed five years earlier. “Buy now and get your choice before the best portion is taken.”
In 1938 the place was mostly orange and lemon groves when fire swept through Yorba Linda’s business district, incinerating a store, one residence and several sheds. The estimated loss was $25,000.
Twenty years later, Vice President Nixon visited his hometown and civic leaders boasted of Yorba Linda being the “new frontier” for rapid residential development in Orange County.
“Things certainly have changed since I was last here,” Nixon told them.
Last weekend, a worker at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace used a garden hose to protect Nixon’s boyhood home as flames approached.
A few miles away, Barry Drees did likewise to save his ex-wife’s home — his former home.
“The reason my home is still here is because of him,” said Cindy Drees, 49, who escaped with some melted windows and a soot-choked infinity pool. “My ex-husband’s a hero. I told people, ‘I’m going to have to marry him again.’ “
Her neighbors on Dorinda Road weren’t as fortunate. Four homes surrounding Drees’ are a jumble of burnt metal and blackened dreams. At one house, the only thing recognizable is a cracked coffee mug picturing two teddy bears. “Could you bear a hug,” the inscription reads
A contractor offering to remove the wreckage left a flier under a rock. Three more enterprising businessmen left cards on the melted mailbox.
“It hasn’t burned in 30 years,” Drees said of the park land below her backyard. “They kept it really clear and got rid of the brush.”
When she remodeled her patio, she made sure concrete embroidered the house. She also didn’t install a patio cover. Her neighbors all had them. Embers latched onto them like magnets.
“I never thought I was in danger,” Drees said. “I thought I’d live here a long time. Now, I don’t know. . . . It doesn’t feel the same to me. It doesn’t seem as safe.”
The fire has changed the cadence of life in Yorba Linda. Landscape crews wield leaf blowers next door to men fumigating smoke-damaged homes. A house on one street is being remodeled; another will be demolished and hauled away. Sand bags are being placed on some streets for fear that future rains will cause mudslides, while cars creep past hollowed-out buildings as if on a tour of Christmas lights. Drivers crane their necks for a good look. Some stop and snap a photo.
“There’s been a lot of lookie-loos,” said Police Officer Robert Conner, who is stationed at one of a number of checkpoints where only residents and those with legitimate business are allowed to pass.
“People can’t get into their driveways because there are cars stopped in front of them,” he said. “At night, people have complained that they can’t sleep because of the noise of vehicles and people talking outside. We want to give these people a break.”
Behind one such checkpoint, J.C. Azizi is on the phone with his mother, who is visiting their native Iran.
He is standing before what was their home, a 3,600-square-foot estate overlooking Santa Ana Canyon. Two of his neighbors’ homes are gone as well. Azizi had hoped to keep this news from his mother, but she awoke that morning after a disturbing dream and called him.
“I tried not to tell her, but she insisted,” said Azizi, 49, who works for a firm acquiring real estate. “It was really difficult for her to hear. But we are resilient people.”
Azizi was 17 in 1980 when his family fled Iran after that country’s Islamic revolution. “My father was a doctor. He lost everything,” Azizi said. “So this is our second time. But we’ll come back again. We’ll rebuild and start fresh.”
He walks through the waist-deep wreckage that was once a two-story home. “What do you think that was?” he asks in front of a clump of metal that looks like nothing. “That was my brother’s Mercedes.” Azizi points to another clump. “My Mercedes. . . . When I called the insurance company, they asked, ‘Is it possible we can tow it?’ “
Azizi says he’ll rebuild, this time installing sprinklers inside the house and on the roof. Insurance can’t replace other things, though, such as a valuable collection of silk Persian rugs or a 300-year-old handwritten book of poetry that had been passed down through generations of his family.
“It told the history of Iran from the beginning of Earth,” Azizi said.
Irreplaceable? Of course.
But consider the fact that this cul-de-sac was consumed by flames in a matter of minutes. Azizi’s brother Amir was about to step into the shower when he heard a neighbor yelling in the street for everyone to get out — now.
A few seconds later, with the water running, Amir probably would not have heard.
Standing amid what was, Azizi knows what might have been.
“I feel like the most blessed person in the world.”