Witch fire victim returns home, celebrates with those who made it possible

Jerry Gentellalli stands in front of his new home, thanking all those who helped him rebuild after the Witch Creek fire. Sentinel photos/Karen Brainard
Jerry Gentellalli stands in front of his new home, thanking all those who helped him rebuild after the Witch Creek fire. Sentinel photos/Karen Brainard

By Karen Brainard

Nearly four years after his home and business burned to the ground, a humble Jerry Gentellalli stood on the front porch of his new house and, with tears in his eyes and a Bible in his hand, he thanked all the volunteers, organizations and businesses that helped him rebuild.

“It’s just amazing,” he said at the July 27 blessing of his home by the Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS). “I just don’t have the words to explain how thrilled I am,” he said, his voice faltering with emotion. “… I want to thank everybody that’s been involved in this blessing. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

About 30 people attended, including volunteers from the Mennonite Disaster Service and members from the San Diego Regional Disaster Fund and from the Community Recovery Team. Those groups and the American Red Cross teamed up to see that Gentellalli would have a new house and a garage for his business.

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Jerry Gentellalli thanks Ramonan Bonnie Fry for all her work in coordinating his recovery from the Witch Creek fire.

Gentellalli lost everything in the 2007 Witch Creek fire, including a small factory for his Rancho Safari business. Specializing in unique and practical bow hunting equipment and accessories, and camouflage clothing, Gentellalli said his business employed 15 people on his property and another 15 residents who worked out of their homes.

“A lot of people in Ramona were working for me,” he said.

In addition to losing the buildings, all his data and paperwork, materials, cutting tables and 30 sewing machines were destroyed. His accounts included such large sports stores as Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shops and Gander Mountain but he lost that business as he tried to recover from the disaster.

“I couldn’t keep up with my orders,” he explained.

Gentellalli said he wasn’t able to get insurance because of his location. To recover from the fire, he dug into his personal savings, took out loans and was aided by volunteers and donations, he said. Now he has about six employees and sells online and to smaller businesses.

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Kevin Froese, right, one of the project directors from MDS, presents Gentellalli with a quilt for his new home.

Gentellalli’s home and business is on the east end of Ramona, back on a winding, hilly dirt road and nestled in a fold of land that is accented with boulders and shaded by trees. A nearby creek, once used by the Indians, runs with water almost year-round, said Gentellalli.

“A lot of the oaks burned down with the fire and that was devastating, but you can see how it’s come back to life,” he said.

“I love it so much here,” he said of his property.

A key person to organizing Gentellalli’s recovery was Bonnie Fry, who managed the Ramona Fire Recovery Center and connected Gentellalli with a case manager through the American Red Cross.

“You created hope,” a grateful Gentellalli told Fry.

Robin Clegg of the Community Recovery Team said Gentellalli’s case was long and complicated because it was a house and business and they needed to bring everything into compliance.

“The county building department worked very cooperatively,” said Clegg. “Even the vendors here in Ramona went above and beyond.”

Mennonite Disaster Service, a volunteer network of Anapabtist churches, known for repairing and rebuilding homes damaged by disasters, sent workers to build the two-bedroom house and garage. Many came from the state of Washington. Kevin Froese from Sequim, Wash., and Terry Miller from Seattle served as co-project directors.

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Volunteers and members of various organizations tour the new two-bedroom house that Mennonite Disaster Service built for Jerry Gentellalli.

Miller gave special thanks to Ransom Brothers for arranging discounts for lumber and other materials, and to Ramona Lumber. Miller said the walls of the house were framed in Washington and delivered to Ramona Lumber, which then transported them to the project site.

Froese said construction began in May and was completed the first week in July. About 35 people from MDS arrived at various times during that time to work on the house.

One of those volunteers was Richard Brandt, who came from the Fresno area to work a week in June. He presented Gentellalli with a wall hanging that his 90-year-old mother made showing a cabin in the woods.

Other gifts that Gentellalli received from MDS included a quilt and a memory book with photos of the construction.

Jerry Klassen, an MDS disaster response coordinator, said Gentellalli’s house is the last one scheduled for the San Diego area. The group built a home for Ray and Josie Hampe of Ramona in spring 2010, and constructed several in the Dulzura area.

Now that he is getting situated, Gentellalli said he can make some projections for 2012. He hopes to re-hire some of his workers and get back his bigger accounts.

“The Lord touched me,” he said. “It’s all a blessing.”

   
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