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Family finds the strength to carry on, rebuild after Rice Fire

The flames of the Rice Canyon Fire swept through Fallbrook last year, leaving a path of devastation and destruction behind. Many families who lost their homes had to find the inner strength to carry on and move forward. Kelly Burke-Chavez and her loved ones are one of those families.

The Chavez home site, where they have lived for five years, is nestled off of Yucca Road in an area of panoramic canyon views.

When the family received official evacuation orders from the Sheriff’s Department the afternoon of October 22, 2007, they thought their home would remain unscathed.

“When you looked out our window, you couldn’t see any flames; the smoke from the fire was headed south and appeared to be on the other side of the freeway,” Kelly said.

Kelly’s husband, Art, said he didn’t feel there was anything to worry about and he conveyed this to their two daughters, Jenny and Megan. “I told the girls that we would be right back,” he remembered. “I said that there would not be a problem.”

Their belief that they would return home in a few hours led them to leave with only a few pictures, a file of important papers, some jewelry, their two dogs and the clothes on their back. That was it.

After the family evacuated, the wind pattern changed and the fire headed straight for their area.

Later that night, Art and his brother ventured as close as they could to Art’s street to try and assess any damage. All they saw were massive flames.

“The flames were so high,” explained Art with tears in his eyes. “It looked like something from a movie set – but it was reality.”

Shortly before Art and his brother left the site, they heard a house alarm sounding. Minutes later, there was a massive explosion. “It was like a bomb,” he said.

Early the following morning, the family was allowed to return to the Yucca Road vicinity. As they tentatively drove along, they realized their worst nightmare. Their home was razed to the foundation.

“It felt like someone kicked you in the stomach,” said Kelly. “The area looked like a war zone.”

Four homes on their street and the majority of the homes that framed the canyon were destroyed.

Losing their personal items was painful, said Kelly, but her main concern was how the loss was going to impact their children for the long-term.

Kelly, with an optimistic outlook on life, moved into a high gear. She found a rental in Bonsall and made the appropriate contacts with the insurance companies and other vital agencies for assistance.

“I made my mental list and got started on it right away,” she said.

Kelly bounced back quickly, as did her daughter Megan and her mother, Patricia Darvas, who also lives with the family.

“Art and Jenny struggled a lot more than we did,” said Kelly.

The support they received from the community was the core of their healing process, the family said. Jenny, who swam with the Fallbrook Associated Swim Team, received a ton of support from the organization.

“They helped us so much with donations and things to get us through our first few days with meals as we moved into our rental,” said Kelly.

For Art, born in Mexico, the town of Fallbrook is family to him. To live and work in this county has been important to him.

And when he and his family came face to face with unbelievable devastation, people were there to help. “I love America for that,” he said.

Kelly was able to see firsthand how many selfless people there are in the world who truly care about others. “That was one of the blessings through this whole thing,” she said.

The Chavez family decided they wanted to rebuild their home in Fallbrook because, for them, Fallbrook is home.

It took nearly 11 months to complete the project. Interestingly enough, their contractor, Eric Wendt, had a unique connection to the original home: he built it and lived there for four years before selling it to the Chavez family.

When Art saw the rebuilding in process, in particular when the walls were erected, he was overwhelmed with emotional joy.

“When we saw our home being rebuilt, it gave us a feeling of hope,” said Kelly.

In mid-September, the Chavezes moved in to their newly constructed home. Their floor plan remained the same, with the exception of some little “tweaks” here and there.

“It feels amazing to be back home,” said Kelly. “Everything has been in limbo for the last 11 months.”

The destruction left by the firestorm revealed what was important in the life of the Chavez family, Kelly said.

“We are definitely closer now as a family,” she said. “When everything is taken from you, you realize very quickly how important family really is.”

One thing that Art was able to salvage from the rubble was a box of collectible coins. The majority of the coins were destroyed, but one gold coin remained in good condition.

Art had it made into a pendant for his wife, which she now wears as a necklace. The inscription on the back of the pendant reads “From The Ashes 07.”

This pendant is a reminder of the suffering the family endured and the healing process they went through. It also represents an important part of life: hope.

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