Thursday, Oct. 25, 2007|The Neiderts’ phone rang Sunday night, warning of wildfires surging north and east of their Barona home.

John Neidert stayed.

Lynn Neidert went.

“In my opinion, there was no reason to leave,” said John Neidert, who was chipper as he described his tubful of cold bathwater and his functional phones. Neidert stayed home in 2003 as the Cedar Fire tore through Barona, and says he saved five homes, including his own, by smothering the flying embers.

“In my opinion, it was suicide to stay,” countered Lynn Neidert, the corners of her mouth turning.

Such choices have wracked residents of Barona, a live-free-or-die outpost along the Mission Tribe’s reservation. Wildfires scarred this town in 2003, decimating dozens of homes and killing a handful of fleeing residents. Yet residents say more people chose to defy mandatory evacuation orders during this round of wildfires, intent on defending their homes themselves.

“The last time, I stayed. It’s the only thing saved my house,” Leonard Banegas Sr. said. Banegas is a grizzled man with a gray feather tucked into his baseball cap and an exotic African Watusi cow in his yard. In 2003, he squelched fires himself, he said. “Fire equipment wouldn’t budge, last time. (Lots of) homes we lost. Bad situation, lady. I wasn’t going to rely on nobody else.”

Wednesday, a police cruiser stoppered the road into Barona, blocking the way to the casino. The call to evacuate had gone out days ago. Yet the town’s only gas station was doing a brisk business in diesel and groceries, and had nearly run out of both bread and unleaded gas. Under a bell-blue sky, the only hint of the sprawling fires was a slight acrid taste in the air.

At the Barona Station, Summer Richardson stocked up on snacks and distractions for her four dark-eyed daughters, who were fidgety after four days stuck in the house. Two suffer from asthma. Richardson, a firefighter’s wife, had decided to hole up in their home in Barona. If the fire strikes too close, she said, her husband will text-message her an SOS. Meanwhile, she racked her brain for new ways to keep the girls entertained: Crayons. Watercolors. Baths tinted with food coloring.

Down the road, retiree Wally Couture settled down in front of his television set alongside his “two little yappers,” and watched nonstop video of flames raging through San Diego County, unperturbed.

“I’m not afraid of any of that stuff,” Couture said. In 2003, Couture said he saved his own home by ringing it with flame-retardant carpet. Power outages had parched the town, which relies on electrically-powered wells. “I wasn’t leaving. … The firefighters can only do what they can do. They can’t have a fire truck for every house.”

Moreover, Couture’s home is uninsured. The price of fire insurance in Barona skyrocketed after the Cedar Fire, he said, pricing out low-income retirees like him.

“The cost of insurance is outrageous,” Couture said. “I’ll take my chances.”

His neighbors Ruth and Kevin Lynch left Barona during the Cedar Fires, lost their home, and spent months grappling with insurance companies. After the 2003 fires, their insurance payments “at least doubled,” said Ruth Lynch.

“Dealing with the insurance companies was the worst thing,” she said. “Now I tell everyone, get an attorney. Consult with an attorney before you consult an insurance company. They’re looking after their assets, and it behooves you to do the same thing for yourself.”

Loath to lose their home again, Kevin Lynch stayed behind Sunday. Ruth Lynch left, and stayed with a friend. The couple reasoned that the thick brush that ignited in the Cedar Fire had already been consumed, and the fire wasn’t likely to make headway into Barona again. Or so they hoped.

Wednesday, they believed their hopes had been realized, as the road to Barona was opened again. Mandatory evacuation orders were still in place Wednesday, and had been since Sunday. Still, Ruth Lynch returned, eager for a shower, and fixed herself a quesadilla.

Lynn Neidert returned too, snaking her car through the hills to find her husband, speeding on his motorcycle into town. Reunited at Barona Station, they puzzled over how to get Lynn’s car back to their home, to retrieve her medicines and a change of clothes. A police cruiser barred the road leading to their house.

Asked if the disaster had dimmed their view of Barona living, the two split. Again.

“Yes,” said Lynn.

“No,” said John, adding, “We’re good for another 50 years.”

Lynn sighed. “Says who?”

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

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