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A new normal: life a year after the Center Fire

April 3, 2012

Glacier View par, cleared by volunteers. A year later, the site has been readied and permitted for the necessary improvements to allow residents to return. Photos by Deb Murphy

The scarred landscape was the first to recover after the Center Fire blew through Big Pine just over a year ago.
Mert Stewart’s pasture, blackened from fence line to fence line, sprouted green shoots within weeks. The skeletal trees above grazing land south of Baker Creek Road are shrouded in a pale green haze after lying dormant for the past year. Nature has a way of healing itself and so, to an extent, do the people who spent the night of March 18, 2011 wondering what they would come back to the next morning.
Both nature and the people who lost their homes are settling into a new normal. Over the last three months, the two cleared home sites on Rossi Hill have been, or are being, rebuilt. Mike and Yvette Rossi cannot replace years of family history, but they have a roof over their heads for the first time in a year. “What can you do,” said Yvette, “You just go on.”
That “you just go on” attitude may be a Big Pine trait, or a result of living so close to the land or just human nature. Karen Moore, pastor at the Community Methodist Church, the hub of donations for the newly-homeless, has kept tabs on those who found it nearly impossible to go on. She told of leaving donations on the doorstep of a man who wouldn’t answer her knock at the door. Moore is still trying to make people whole.
The scars still show at Glacier View mobile home park and at the Indian Camp, a six-acre private trust co-owned by 10 families, some of the grandchildren of the original purchasers of the land in 1910. But even that is changing.
According to Glacier View owner Whistler Hurd, work was to tentatively begin any day now, making the necessary infrastructure improvements so people can come back. Nine homes were destroyed in the fire; the lots have been re-arranged to accommodate eight. With the help of volunteer groups, the Big Pine firefighters and equipment and staff from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the site had been completely cleared by the end of last summer; Hurd wanted to wait until winter had past before starting the work. “It could be done in 60 days,” he said.
While Inyo County made provisions to ease the rebuilding process – waiving fees, expediting the permits and extending those considerations for up to five years – mobile home parks are under the auspices of the California Department of Housing and Community Development, which Supervisor Marty Fortney admitted is a more costly, more time-consuming process. According to HCD inspector Steve Swanson, the permitting at Glacier View was moving smoothly with everything properly engineered.
Smoothly doesn’t necessarily mean quickly, at least not quickly enough for Jack B. who willingly discussed his past year but did not wish to be identified. Jack and his wife escaped with their dogs, and their ability to make a living, secure in their vehicles. Everything else was destroyed. Friends gave them a temporary place to live; their mobilehome was insured; they found a rental in Bishop and family duplicated photographs lost in the fire. Jack, too, had that casual shrug and you-just-go-on attitude, as if having all of one’s possessions reduced to ashes is no big deal. The main issue seemed to be the untimeliness of it all. He was too young to retire and too old to consider taking on a house mortgage. He missed the view from his mobile and the apple tree he could read under in the afternoons.
“I got as far as sending away for floor plans of a new mobile,” he said, “but I didn’t know where I was going to put it.” No other park had that view and his dog was taller than the height restriction at other parks. Maybe now he can re-examine those floor plans.
Travis Allison was another Glacier View refugee. He spent that night and into the next morning at his second job at Hi-Country Market at the corner of U.S. 395 and Crocker Street. Allison had just moved into a rented mobile. He drove up to the park, retrieved a baseball book his parents had given him for Christmas and headed to the market to pick up something to drink. “There was so much smoke in the air at that point,” he said, “you knew it was bad but you couldn’t tell how close the fire really was.”
He wasn’t slated to go to work for a while, but ended up getting stuck behind the counter. Within 30-45 minutes, it was too late; the evacuation order was out and the streets closed. “I stayed at the store until about 2:30 a.m.,” he said. “We took care of the firefighters. There was a lot of speculation at that point. Nobody really knew what was going on.”
When the store closed, Allison talked to some of the firefighters. They wouldn’t tell him his home was gone, “but I could tell from their eyes, it probably was.” He admitted he was in denial until he walked up Crocker to see for himself. The walls were standing, but the roof was gone and the interior was gutted. They rummaged through what was left and Allison took some of his charred, water-soaked belongings with him. They still smell of smoke.
Allison accepted very little help. “I’m appreciative,” he said, “the community really stepped up big time. I just chose not to file for any help. It is what it is. It’s life; stuff happens and you just pick up and move on.”
At first, Allison said the experience hadn’t changed him. Then he admitted “it made me wake up a little, appreciate different things. You just never know. That’s one of the great things about life, you just never know.”
The situation at Indian Camp is more complex than Glacier View. Rebuilding is still in the planning stages, according to one of the trust members, Jim Westervelt. “It all depends on what people can afford.”
While the county waived zoning issues, allowing for structures that had been grandfathered in to be rebuilt, it cannot waive building codes, according to Doug Wilson, interim director of Public Works. “You can rebuild to the footprint of the structure that was destroyed, but it has to be to code.” Indian Camp will have to have water and sewer systems brought up to date.
Not much at the camp complied with Inyo’s General Plan in terms of zoning, Wilson said.
Despite the noncompliance, the trustees have great pride in the property. One of the structures destroyed was an old “cowboy house,” said Westervelt, that had been moved from the Piper Ranch, a spread that included the meadow near Sugar Loaf Road. “In the 1960s, there were about 50 people living here,” he said. “Of those 50, seven fought in Vietnam.”
“We have no problem abiding by the rules,” said Trustee Board member David Rambeau. What Rambeau has a problem with is the existence of a mobile home placed on the property despite the fact none of the required systems are in place. He wants the county to resolve that issue before any improvements are made. “We want to start moving ahead,” he said.
At the time of the fire, Rambeau thinks two or three of the structures were occupied. His vision is for legal, manufactured homes to replace the destroyed buildings. “It will be back to normal,” he said.

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