A family's resilience withstands the flames

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

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

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