Witch fire survivors are ‘stronger and wiser’
By Karen Brainard
Faith and angels have carried John and Janice Strizver through the challenges, heartaches and tears of losing their home and rebuilding their lives after the Witch fire six years ago this month. Some of those angels are still with them.
“We’re stronger and wiser and more faithful than ever,” said Janice, sitting at a table in their new home overlooking the Highland Valley Road area and the mountains beyond.
“There were some hard times, but that which doesn’t break you makes you stronger,” said John, who attributed the stress of the fire disaster to a recurrence of his cancer. The two, who said as of this summer they finally felt there was nothing left to do on the house, talked about several uncanny circumstances from their experiences that still leave them in awe. “The way I look at it, God sent his angels,” John said.
Janice, a nurse, was at work in El Cajon Sunday, Oct. 22, 2007, when she saw smoke in the distance around noon and called John. He was watching that smoke in the east and told her the fire was in Santa Ysabel. As the fire advanced, he called her at 8:30 p.m. and she headed home with no idea that Ramona was being evacuated. As she recalled being the only vehicle going north on State Route 67 other than emergency vehicles, Janice said, “I’ve got the chills right now. Basically the entire town evacuated and I’m going the other way.”
Smoke, ash and debris were blowing about in the strong Santa Ana winds and she could hardly turn through the continuous line of vehicles heading south to get onto Archie Moore Road.
Once home, Janice, John, and their sons Nick and Sam packed some items, and Sam’s girlfriend, now his wife, took photos of the rooms.
“And didn’t really think about it. Didn’t think we’d come back to no house,” said Janice, adding that she only packed about three days worth of clothes.
In 2003 the Cedar Creek fire came up behind their property but the wind shifted and their house was spared.
“I was in denial,” said John. “It always happens to somebody else.”
Everyone left the house except John, who said he made three bad assumptions: 1) that he would be able spray with his fire hoses — loss of power prevented such use; 2) that, if need be, he could jump in the pool, but it was an above-ground pool with a plastic lining that would burn; and 3) when he couldn’t see the flames in the distance through the smoke, he assumed the wind had changed direction as it had in 2003.
When he left the house around 1 or 2 a.m. and headed down Highland Valley Road to the 15 freeway, he only passed one or two fire trucks. He pulled into North County Fair mall, slept till 4 or 5 a.m., and when he turned on the radio, he heard that all of Highland Valley Road was engulfed. John said his reaction was, “Wow, thank you, God. Because I was so wrong about so much of it — he saw me through it.”
After the fire, when they could return to the rubble left on their property, Janice was struck by seeing a small white resin angel sitting on a fountain that had been scorched. It wasn’t just that the angel had not burned, but it had not moved from its spot, despite the wind gusts.
John showed a picture of a freezer they had outside that was cremated in the fire, but the gas grill next to it with matches and lighter fluid survived.
A fireman found their wedding cake topper, intact with a bit of glass fused to it, where their closet had been.
While reminiscing, Janice, who collects angels, reached up into a glass-front cabinet and pulled out a pair of ceramic angels, partially blackened with pieces of glass fused onto them. They miraculously did not break when they fell as the house burned, she said. Next to them on the shelf are two identical angels — shiny and undamaged — that she found when she opened a box at a fire victims’ Christmas event.
Janice said her immediate thought was “my angels. I mean they’re exactly the same. Those are my little assurances,” she said of such moments.
John said his eyes were opened to the compassion of people and the workings of government. He credited the faith-based organizations that provided assistance but is critical of government help after his encounter with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). He said FEMA gave them an application but once it found out they had insurance, they were rejected.
That insurance only covered 50 percent of the house, they learned. John said that after the 2003 wildfire he questioned his agent about their home insurance coverage and was assured it was sufficient.
As they lived in a motor home on the property, the Strizvers poured all their insurance money, even for the contents of the home, along with savings and income into constructing a new house, one that is considered non-combustible.
The thick walls are constructed with insulated concrete forms (ICF) that offer fire resistance and energy efficiency. The radiant barrier roof sheathing under the roof tiles prevents heat from penetrating into the attic space, said John.
They also bought a back-up generator and drilled a well. They moved into the new house in May 2010 when it was what they considered livable.
After starting to break down in a lighting store with no idea what to do, Janice said she was put in touch with an interior designer who offered discounted services to fire victims.
“He was such a godsend,” she said.
In addition to focusing on putting their lives back together, Janice was instrumental in organizing Fired Up Sisters, a nonprofit group offering support to women who lost their home in a wildfire. The group held warehouse events with merchant-donated household goods and building materials. She is still involved with Fired Up Sisters and has many friends in the group.
Comfortable now in their new home, proud of their grown sons, and grateful for so much, Janice said she gets up in the morning and thinks, “how blessed we are.”
- Fired Up Sisters invites wildfire survivors to ‘Come and Get It’
- Cal Fire stops spread of 20-acre brush fire in Witch Creek area
- Witch fire victim returns home, celebrates with those who made it possible
- Witch fire victims share prevention advice
- Witch Fire: One family, one year later
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