Summit Fire anniversary unites community

May 12, 2009 7:20:39 PM PDT
It's been nearly a year now since a devastating fire roared through the Santa Cruz Mountains. It was known as the Summit Fire. The homes, lives and communities that were destroyed in a matter of hours or minutes, can take years to rebuild.

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For Diana and Ron Wohnoutka, a vacant piece of land in the Santa Cruz Mountains is where their future and past collide.

"Ten, 15 minutes after we woke up, the fire had moved several miles toward us. It was imminent, there was no doubt about it," said Ron Wohnoutka.

When it was over, not a lot remained of their home of 26 years.

And this was the unstoppable force known as the Summit Fire. On may 22, 2008 the wind-whipped flames burned through 4,200 acres and destroyed some 60 homes.

A year later, the healing and rebuilding have begun -- at least for the Wohnoutka family.

"I've kind of come to terms with it, I'm over the loss thing. If I really need to see what I've lost I have a whole set of pages I had to submit to our insurance company," said Diana Wohnoutka.

Santa Cruz County did a couple of things to help the fire victims. They expedited the permit process which saved time and slashed the fees by 60 percent, saving them money.

The construction work at 620 Ormsby Road started in October and now the first and only home is almost ready for move-in.

It belongs to Ron's 88-year-old mother Gertrude Wohnoutka.

The views and remote living come at a price and for some there is no going back.

Kenny Rich understands his father-in-law's tough decision not to rebuild.

"Living in these conditions, it's constant maintenance on the house and on the yard. Starting from ground zero is a big step for anybody," said Rich.

In the aftermath of the Summit Fire, only four homeowners have applied for building permits. The Planning Department suspects many of the structures destroyed were built illegally and those fire victims aren't given any preferential treatment.

"The idea is not to be punitive. We're trying to be fair to the people who had gone through the process, who got permits and paid their taxes on these properties, said Assistant Planning Director Mark Deming.

For the handful of people building in earnest, the recession is stretching their insurance money.

Sub contractors have lowered their bids by about 30 percent from a year ago.

"You're getting a lot of companies from out of the area, Sacramento area over the hill that are competing with the local small businesses here so the bidding is a lot tighter," said Steven Carrera from S & J Carrera Construction.

The economy is not the only post fire reality, there's also the matter of justice.

A contractor clearing brush on Summit Road property is accused of unintentionally starting the blaze.

CAL FIRE had cited Channing Verden twice for not following the proper burn procedures. If convicted, Verden faces up to seven years in prison.

"He should be put in prison for a long time because he ruined a lot of people's lives," said Gertrude Wohnoutka.

Those lives, just like the fire scared landscape, are healing at their own pace.

"There are a lot of emotional times to go through and stuff, but the plan was always to come back and rebuild and now we're at that stage, and it's more exciting than ever," said Ron Wohnoutka.

The Wohnoutkas will tell you that excitement and energy can help rebuild a home -- even fill it with new memories, but it still takes time.

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