October 25, 2013 marks the 10th anniversary of the San Diego’s Cedar Fire – the largest wildfire in California history. For San Diegans, especially those who lived in communities impacted by the fire, it’s an indelible moment in their life story.
For Scripps Ranch couple Steve and Penny Homel, it’s a time they’ll never forget.
On a street where destruction from the Cedar Fire covered every single home, the Homels own the one that didn’t get away.
On a Saturday morning in October 2003, the Cedar Fire overtook Pinecastle Street in Scripps Ranch.
“It was strange outside, and all yellow, and hazy, and you could smell the smoke,” Penny recalled. “We were probably the first ones to leave.”
As it turns out, they were the first ones to return for good.
“There are 44 houses on our street and 43 of them burned down,” said Steve, pointing to a framed aerial photograph in a back bedroom showing his home surrounded by driveways and piles of rubble.
The photograph hangs next to two other framed pieces of paper reading: “God Bless this house and the firefighters who protect it.”
The pieces of paper come from a fax – one which was sent, and the other received – that the Homels sent to their home.
It was their attempt to see if it would go through telling them, essentially, whether or not the home was still standing.
The fax went through and was waiting for them on the printer when they returned home four days later to survey the damage.
They walked down a street surrounded in destruction as far as they could see and then, as they turned the corner, they saw their home virtually untouched.
“When everyone else is struggling and you’re surviving, you feel bad about it,” said Steve. “The end of the week we moved back in and amazingly all of our utilities were operating, it was like we were on an island in the middle of a war zone.”
They remember being shocked at how dark it was without neighbor’s lights and how quiet it was for the next year without children playing in the street.
They were essentially the only neighbors on the block.
For years the Homels have wrestled with the question, “Why me?” Today, 10 years later, they still don’t have an answer.
Now surrounded by much bigger million dollar homes, there are times Penny wonders if she is still the lucky one.
“It becomes an internal dilemma because on one hand you’re glad, on the other hand, well I really could’ve used a bigger kitchen,” she joked.
But, in the end, and in all seriousness, these parents of four grown children and three grandchildren feel grateful to be living in the oldest house on the block.