By: Susan Valot
Next week, jurors will resume deliberating whether to recommend the death penalty or life in prison for Rickie Lee Fowler, the man convicted of starting the 2003 Old Fire in the San Bernardino Mountains. The wind-driven flames destroyed more than 330 homes in the community east of Los Angeles. Only about a quarter of the homeowners are back, including Pat Grimwood.
"There was one, two, three, four, five...at least five houses right here just below me. One, two, three down along the creek and then there was two up behind them," he says.
On most days, if you drive down Hook Creek Road near Lake Arrowhead, you'll find Grimwood tending to his half-acre, dirt lot. Most of the towering trees here are gone, replaced now by post-fire shrubs and bushes. He grew up on this land, in two houses that were both wiped out by the Old Fire. He had plans to rebuild at first.
"I held off and I was revising the plans when the bottom started falling out of the housing market. And I just gave them back the building permit and folded it up," he remembers. "I couldn't afford to get caught and not be able to sell the house that I'm in now that I bought with the insurance money and I was going to build this house and sell that one and pay it off so there wasn't any loan against the house."
Grimwood thinks the bland housing market and slow economy are part of the reason his neighbors are now mostly shrubs, instead of people.
"I just don't see how logically a person could come in here and build a house. It costs so much to build. And you can go over and buy a house, an existing house in a better part of town than you can build one. So financially, it just doesn't make any sense," Grimwood says.
Most of the people here were underinsured, or not insured at all. Many of their homes were on small "tent lots" intended for tents and trailers, not houses. The homes burned. To have enough room to rebuild under modern building codes, homeowners had to buy up neighboring lots. Kevin Aley rebuilt what his neighbors call the "Hobbit house." He bought nine lots to make about an acre around his round house. He says his neighbor across the street bought 16. But still, Aley says rebuilding took him a couple of years.
"It's like all of a sudden, if your house burns down, you're thrown into a game and you don't know the rules. So it takes a while to figure out the rules," he says.
Aley says being among the first to rebuild helped him get through the process before officials started changing building codes. But the crumbling infrastructure hasn't changed. It's a roadblock to rebuilding this once working class neighborhood. The private water company went under after the fire. The water system's inadequate for the community and water bills are sky high. The government took over. San Bernardino County set up a redevelopment project area for Cedar Glen, loaning it millions from the county's general fund and a bond measure. County spokesman David Wert says the state then got rid of redevelopment agencies and took the money.
"It's sitting there because the state can't seem to make up its mind as to what can be spent and what can't be spent. So the money is there to rebuild Cedar Glen and we just can't do it," Wert says.
Wert says the county's trying to get back the money amid the confusing dismantling of redevelopment agencies. Dave Stuart created the group Hearts and Lives to help the community after the fire. Stuart doesn't live in Cedar Glen, but he's closely followed the trial of the arsonist convicted of starting the Old Fire. Stuart is livid about what the state has done with the redevelopment money.
"They stole it from the RDA. And they went to court and the court said, 'Yeah, the state can disband RDA's.' In the particular case here, the county had the money, raised it. They needed to use it right now," Stuart says. "There are preventive measures that HAVE to be done in Cedar Glen or the disaster is going to be repeated. They need water tanks. They have the money to do it and the state won't release it."
The state Department of Finance says it didn't steal any redevelopment money, but rather, it's following the law that outlines the dissolution of redevelopment agencies. It says it can't use property tax money to repay the county loan. Cedar Glen can't replace the narrow roads that prevented firefighters from coming in to protect the houses in 2003 until it gets the water infrastructure. But homeowner Kevin Aley says in a way, it's a good thing.
"They're probably not going to spend any more money down here. But then again, we might get forgotten. And then it's going to be this nice little, quaint neighborhood with not very many houses. So maybe in another five or ten years, it's going to be a highly sought-after neighborhood because it's not crowded," says Aley.
Aley and others here say since the neighborhood's so sparsely populated, they actually know each other now and have regular parties and dinners, creating a sense of community that they never had before.