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Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2007 | In the heat of the afternoon sun Tuesday, up a dusty yellow side road in Del Dios, Rancho Santa Fe’s less tony sister neighborhood, a trio of cowboys were drinking cans of Budweiser and fighting the fires with a borrowed four-inch hose.

As even the official firefighters retreated from the marching of the flames, Stan Smith, bare-chested and leather-faced, squinted from underneath his cowboy hat and cheered at the helicopters that had finally arrived to scoop water from the lake far below. His partners squirted down the dried brush and cacti surrounding a neighbor’s house and talked excitedly about past fires and present dangers. Smith philosophized.

“My brother went to Cambridge, he’s a Rhodes Scholar,” he said. “But I don’t reckon he’s ever taken a hose and fought no fire like this before.”

The Del Dios volunteer firemen are a tiny scrap of a colorful canvas of personalities that the 2007 wildfires have revealed in San Diego. In the face of the smoke and the flames and the evacuations, the county’s characters have dug deep into themselves and pulled out reserve, courage, and maybe just a little silliness.

A few miles west of where the (wicked) Witch Fire lapped with her angry tongue at both sides of the Del Dios Highway, past miles of charcoal trees and rocks, another trio was carrying out their own brand of salvation.

Justine Rice, her son Joe Wells, and their friend Dawn Butler had been through quite a ride to get to Rice’s large home in the heart of Rancho Santa Fe.

“You can’t believe what we did,” Butler said. “You want to write a story? It’s a book! We went through people’s back yards; we went through gated communities — over the fences, under the valleys and through the rivers.”

At every turn, Butler said, she would creep out of the car and peek around the corner to see if the road was blocked by police. If so, they would try a different route.

Once they arrived at Rice’s home, the intrepid trio salvaged the really valuable items: Photographs, hard drives, insurance papers, and several bottles of top-shelf liquor from Rice’s bar.

“We’re gonna have a party tonight, woo-hee!” sang Butler, who seemed like she’d been partying for a while already.

But while the wildfires brought a sense of adventure to the lives of Butler and Rice, several miles north, in the San Pasqual Valley near Ramona, Nancy and Donald Chrystal had nothing to smile about. Donald was bent over the charred, flaky remains of his home and his life’s work, literally sifting through the rubble and ash for anything salvageable. At his feet, a clay bowl was slowly filling with tiny disks of metal — coins that had somehow survived the heat.

In the wasteland were tiny pieces of their former home.

“Ohhh, there’s my tortoise,” Nancy said, poking with her open-toed sandals at a few pieces of what was once a clay statue. “And there’s our bed — Oh, we had such a lovely bed.”

Hiding her tearful eyes behind a pair of replica designer sunglasses, Nancy clutched a crushed, half-empty can of Miller Genuine Draft and a packet of Camels as she talked about the demise of her home and her business.

The fire came through the San Pasqual Valley in the early hours of Monday night, Nancy said. Just before dawn, firefighters ordered a small group of local homeowners out of the valley, including her daughter, whose seven-bedroom, five-bathroom home across the valley was also destroyed. When they returned, all that was left of the Chrystals’ stone-sculpture business were piles and piles of stone which had either warped or melted into unrecognizable blobs.

Back in Rancho Santa Fe, Courtney Booth and Lawrence Gonzi were determined not to let the officials dictate what they could do to save their home.

The two middle-aged businessmen defied an evacuation order and hustled into their neighborhood down back roads on Monday afternoon. They set up camp in the house they share, which had no power but was otherwise unscathed, and scouted around the deserted neighborhood checking for small fires that could turn ugly.

“We worked on candles for the evening and breathed heavy smoke all night,” Booth said.

Late Monday night, when the winds dropped and things looked calmer, the two men retreated to the safety of their office in Sorrento Valley for a few hours’ sleep.

But they were back in Rancho Santa Fe at first light. Throughout the morning, Booth and Gonzi carried on their patrols, alerting firefighters to blazes and generally keeping an eye on things. They didn’t let the drama, or the lack of power, spoil their appetite.

“We have butane out here, so we were able to turn on the barbecue and have cheese and mushroom omelets this morning — how about that?” Booth said.

But Del Dios’ three cowboy firefighters were more worried about getting a cigarette than having enough to eat. As the fires blazed about 40 feet away, Kenny Morris shoved a cigarette under his grey handlebar moustache and asked if anyone had a light.

“I guess I could just go over there and light it,” he said. The fire roared.

“Or maybe not.”

Please contact Will Carless directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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