After the Fires
By Marcia Manna
DEBRA KINNEY STOOD in a department store with a large ceramic bowl in her arms and tried to control a sudden bout of sobbing. It was Thanksgiving, and a month had passed since the Cedar fire raged through Julian, burning down her home and nearly 500 others in the county. “I was crying over the fact that I had to buy a salad bowl,” she says. “I had glassware from Mexico that I had collected for 25 years—you know, the blue-rimmed glasses. There are little things, things you get spoiled with. You go to get something and think, I don’t have one of those.”
Julian’s citizens still struggle with mind-boggling loss and bittersweet memories. But now, more than ever before, they are a community bonded by tragedy, determined to survive. The key to that survival is reviving tourism.
About one-third of Julian’s property owners work in town or commute to jobs. Another third are retired. The rest keep a vacation home in Julian but live elsewhere. All the proprietors of restaurants, bed-and-breakfast homes and retail stores make the bulk of their annual income during autumn and winter.
Tourism is the town’s largest industry, and income earned from September through December can make the difference between feast or famine. Before the Cedar fire, Julian catered to about 5,000 visitors a weekend during high season.
Last October, the blazing inferno hopped, skipped and jumped through the former gold-mining town, sparing one home and incinerating the next. Firemen lined Main Street with their hoses hooked up to hydrants, intent on saving the historic buildings. The fires whipped past, and the downtown area was unscathed. But four bed-and-breakfast inns and seven rental cottages in nearby wooded areas burned to the ground.
In Wynola, just outside Julian, the blaze claimed the life of fireman Steven Rucker and wounded three others. Hundreds of families were evacuated to Borrego Springs High School, where they slept on cots and waited to hear what was burned and what was saved. Debriefings were held nightly.
SCOTT AND DEBRA KINNEY lived within minutes of the Pine Hills Lodge, where they had staged dinner-theater shows for more than 20 years. The future looked bright: Their production of Forever Plaid had sold out every night.
While evacuated, Debra Kinney thought about the forest of stately pines that surrounded the lodge and the family’s two-story home. A fire department employee broke the news: The home was a blackened heap, but the lodge and theater were undamaged. When it was safe, she visited the “war zone” where her house once stood.
“One of the items we found in the ashes was an angel I had when I was a little girl,” Kinney says. “It was part of our Christmas nativity scene. It didn’t even look like it was in a fire, yet everything else melted. My refrigerator melted. My stove melted. Yet there was this tiny angel, untouched.”
Alan Marvin can stare into the gutted basement of his inn, once known as the Julian White House. With four guestrooms, it was the largest bed-and-breakfast in town. Marvin lived on the premises and worked seven days a week, building a reputation that drew annual visits from guests who remembered his made-from-scratch oatmeal pancakes. Though he lost his home and job, Marvin found a renewed sense of gratitude. Every night, he makes it a point to watch the sun setting over the mountain peaks.
“That’s the best thing in life,” he says. “There is nothing certain about tomorrow. You just take it one day at a time.” Marian and Tyler Johnson tend Apple Lane Orchards, a 10- acre farm with about 1,500 apple trees and a small, on-site retail store. They process and sell apple slices for the pies sold at local restaurants and bakeries. The Johnson family includes a 6-yearold son, a Newfoundland dog, a cat and a goat. When they were told to evacuate, they headed for a camping area that would allow animals. There was no time to buy food or water.
“We didn’t have anything,” says Tyler. “Campers saw we weren’t prepared, and I was uncomfortable, not knowing these people. But they offered us everything. Pillows. Blankets. One couple in a rickety old camper offered us dinner and breakfast the next day—and they knew they lost their home already.” The Johnsons slept in the back of a Dodge Durango truck and awaited their fate. About $4,000 worth of apple slices and cider, stored in refrigerated coolers, spoiled when the town’s electricity was shut off. But firemen diverted the blaze from their home, by digging a trench and throwing stacks of firewood away from the building. The apple trees, with their high water content, were also spared.
Despite so many individual losses, the townspeople rallied together.
“I never imagined a community could pull together the way this one did, says Julian Chamber of Commerce president Dick Thilkin. “All of the churches worked cooperatively for months, ministering to the fire relief fund. Individuals came out of the woodwork and spent their time at Town Hall, manning the phones and sorting food and clothes. It was amazing. And most of the people were victims themselves.”
NOWADAYS, THERE ARE TWO HOT TOPICS discussed at the post office: rebuilding, and the status of insurance claims. Business owners meet regularly to brainstorm ways to reclaim the tourists who once made Julian an annual destination.
Visitors will find the town essentially unchanged. There’s the familiar scent of cinnamon-spiced apples, hot from the oven and steaming beneath flaky piecrusts. Roadside stands display a variety of fresh-picked fruits and vegetables. Crafts and antique stores leave their doors open, and proprietors are likely to smile at all who enter.
A rustic theme is planned for the reopening of the Julian White House Bed & Breakfast, which Marvin hopes will occur early next year. Scott and Debra Kinney have launched a new production company and intend to stage future plays in Julian. Marian Johnson waits for customers in the retail store that sits among neat rows of trees at Apple Lane Orchard. Sweet Jonagolds bulge from bags on the counter, and cool pints of brown cider line the refrigerator shelves.
“Julian is still standing,” she says. “We’re waiting for you. It’s still pretty up here. It’s the mountain life.”