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A family's resilience withstands the flames

The beige French country-style home in the hills, with a distant view of the sea on blue-sky days, had been built to withstand California's best punches.

Earthquake. Hurricane-force winds. Wildfire.

I came upon the place while reporting in San Diego County on Tuesday, a day after the Witch fire had swept through Red Mountain Lane in Fallbrook. Standing on the porch that day, I saw a doorknob at my feet, sitting on a pile of ashes that had been the front door.

The interior was so incinerated I couldn't tell a sofa from a chandelier. The steel rafters sagged into rooms covered with a foot of ash, rubble and the slate tiles that had been the roof. In one room, the ceiling sprinklers were still on, as if the house couldn't accept that the fight was over.

A neighbor, Allen Yun, told me a fireball had rolled down a ridge just to the east late Monday night, and he and his father got out just before it destroyed several houses. Yun had to point to where the houses had been, because with the exception of the home where I was standing, everything was flattened.

After a couple of days of searching, I got through to the owners by phone. Shari Kunz, a bookkeeper, told me she hadn't been back to the house yet, but a neighbor had delivered the bad news.

"We built it ourselves," she said, her tone somewhere between disbelief and exhaustion. "We started in 2000, moved into it in 2001, and we've been working on it ever since."

Six months ago, she said, they finally finished.

And now this.

Friday morning at 8, the family met me in Temecula to go see the house for the first time. There was Glenn Kunz, a general contractor, and Shari, as well as their children, Daniel, 25; David, 28; Jaime, 29; and Jaime's husband, Jeremiah Boshard, a contractor who helped the Kunzes build their house. The displaced members of the family are staying at the Boshard home near Temecula for now, until they figure out what to do.

After turning off of Interstate 15, our two-car caravan began stopping every few hundred yards to take in the destruction. Some houses had been reduced to ashes, while nearby, Fallbrook's scenic beauty was still fit for a postcard, with fine, strong houses peering over the tops of avocado groves.

I drove slowly, holding off the inevitable a while longer. But finally we turned off Mission Road and headed up the lane, giving the Kunzes the first view of the house that had been a retreat for the entire family, including four grandchildren.

"I feel like I'm in a dream," Shari says, holding her face in her hands.

"Oh, my gosh."

We park in the driveway, next to Glenn's destroyed Porsche, whose wheels have melted. Jaime wraps her arms around her mother as they both sob.

"I'm so sorry," she tells her mother. "I just can't believe this. It doesn't seem real."

David was the last of the siblings living with his parents as he built his own home. To add insult to injury, he's now battling with his insurance company over the loss of his car, which was in the garage.

"I don't think you'll be driving it any time soon," Glenn says to David when they see the burned-out hulk that once was a Mercedes-Benz.

David says Mercury turned down his claim, arguing that the fire hit just past midnight, after the policy expired. David argues that the fire came through before midnight, and in any event, he says he wasn't aware his coverage was due to expire. He says the insurance company hasn't heard the last from him on the matter.

The family traipses through the house, marveling at the completeness of the incineration. Photos that once hung on walls have vanished without a trace.

"Oh look, there's still dishes in the dishwasher," says Jaime, noting that the door of the machine has melted away.

She has less of a sense of humor, though, about the fact that no pictures of her as a baby survived the fire. That part of her life has been erased but for the memories.

The Kunzes packed a few photos and clothes when they fled Monday, Shari says, but they didn't take much else. They didn't expect the fire to come near them, and even if it did, they thought the house was fireproof. They had deliberately built it with a steel frame instead of wood, and with plaster three times the normal thickness. They'd carefully cleared brush, as required, at least 100 feet in every direction.

Then there was the reservoir behind the house, the fire hydrant out front with a green grass buffer, and, a few hundred yards away, the California Department of Forestry's Mountain Lane fire station.

How could they lose out to a fire?

Before their casual evacuation, Shari had cleaned the house and set out a bouquet of flowers, so they'd have a nice home to return to.

She laughs softly now.

For all they've lost, the family seemed most disappointed about damage to the belongings of a young couple that was moving into a wing of the house that served as a guest apartment. They took turns digging through what's left of the closets and carried out boxes of personal effects that included a pink photo book.

"Oh, look!" Jaime said. "It's their wedding album."

Shari was relieved. The young couple was from their Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints ward, and she was feeling guilty about their losses.

Like a lot of fires, this one was as quirky as it was cruel. The Kunzes found a roll of paper towels and a brown paper bag, probably the most flammable items in the house, completely untouched.

As the family stood out front, blackened grass crunching under their feet, I told them I was amazed at how well they were holding up. They seemed strong, having lost neither their humor nor their humility.

"This is just how my parents are," said Jaime. "They lose everything, and they're already trying to help our friends."

"It's just property," said David.

"It's all replaceable," Daniel added. "You move on."

There's a silver lining, Shari said. They were well-insured, and the fire has actually clarified something for them. One reason they worked so hard on the house was that they hoped to sell it at a nice profit one day, move to a smaller place and live comfortably in retirement.

Instead, they'll rebuild on this very spot with plans to live out their years right here. With their own hands, once again, they'll erect a more modest, less-expensive house. Instead of investing so much in fireproofing the structure, they'll do a better job of fireproofing the surrounding area, clearing more vegetation and planting fire-resistant succulents.

"This life is about learning and growing," Shari said. "This is where our heart is."

"I love it here," Glenn said, looking across Mission toward the hills near the Live Oak area.

He had managed, after another search of the charred remains, to find several plastering tools that survived the fire. His father was a plasterer, so the discovery meant a lot. With these tools, Glenn said, his family will have the makings of a fresh start.

"I needed another project anyway."

steve.lopez@latimes.com

ON LATIMES.COM To see photos of the Kunz family and their home, go to www.latimes.com/lopezwildfires

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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