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Neighbors Help Family Rebuild After Devastating Cocos Fire

When the Cocos fire raced through the hills of San Marcos a year ago, Dan Eubank’s 4,000-square-foot home was among the casualties.

“We lost 32 years of our lives,” Eubank said. “We built the home in 1981 to '82, and we worked on it every minute of every day until right up to the fire.”

He and his wife, Susan Eubank, were among the dozens of people who lost their homes during a wild week in May 2014 when more than a dozen wildfires whipped by Santa Ana winds roared through San Diego County. The fires devoured nearly 27,000 acres and destroyed 63 homes.

County officials calculated the total cost of the brush fires at $56 million — $27 million in property damage and $29 million to fight the blazes.

Photo by Susan Murphy

Dan Eubank, 64, works on rebuilding his San Marcos-area home, May 11, 2015. It was destroyed in the Cocos fire in May 2014.

On the afternoon of May 14, 2014, Eubank and his wife were at their Coronado Hills home on the edge of San Marcos when they first saw smoke in the distance.

“I called 911 and they took my information,” Eubank recalled this week. “And I said, ‘There are no fire trucks, no sirens, no sheriffs, no nothing, but the fire’s raging up here.’”

The 64-year-old retired architect and carpenter spent the next three hours with his wife trying to protect their property, which Eubank said was outlined with defensible space and equipped with a fire hydrant and 300-foot-long fire hose.

“We wet everything down during that interim period hoping that it would save it,” he said. “But the fire was so ferocious.”

As the flames closed in, the Eubanks evacuated with just the clothes on their backs. A video Dan Eubank shot captured the emotion of the moment.

“Goodbye, house. Goodbye, 30 years of my life. Thanks a helluva lot, fire department,” Eubanks said in the video, which showed billowing smoke and flames nearing his home.

“And we went to the bottom of the hill and watched our house burn overnight — that was Wednesday,” Eubank said. “We watched it burn on Thursday. We watched it burn on Friday. It took three days for my house to burn down. Nobody ever stopped here to put any water on it.”

Nick Schuler, Cal Fire's division chief in North County, acknowledged that homes and businesses were lost last May despite the efforts of firefighters from throughout the state, but many more were spared. More than 121,000 residents also were successfully evacuated, said Schuler, an incident commander on the Cocos fire.

"During times of disasters, difficult decisions have to be made including determining how to provide the greatest protection for our entire community not just a single home. Our number one priority is life safety. It is unfortunate to see a fire destroy any home," he said in a statement Thursday.

Eubank said he and his wife found the whole fire experience surreal.

“We held on to the thought that we would come up here and sift through the ashes and find my wife’s grandmother’s jewelry and that sort of thing. It doesn’t happen. There is nothing left. It melts everything,” he said.

Photo by Susan Murphy

Wooden beams and plywood outline Dan Eubank's new home, which sits atop a hill near San Marcos, May 11, 2015. His house was destroyed in the Cocos fire in May 2014.

He’s cried just once, he said, when his three childre and seven grandchildren arrived to see the devastation.

“Because they grew up here. And the grandkids — I had made it kind of like a fantasyland for the kids, and I had zip lines and swings and all kinds of stuff," he said.

Eubank had also built 27 other houses in the hills that border the city of San Marcos. At least three burned to the ground, he said.

The Eubanks are rebuilding their home — with a lot of help from devoted neighbors.

Wooden beams and plywood outline the new, two-story structure that remains surrounded by acres of charred land and splintered trees. New this time is a fire bunker made of 8-inch thick concrete — in case they ever need to take refuge again.

“It’s the first thing I put back,” Eubank said. “It’s only 7 feet wide by 20 feet long, and that’s where we’re sleeping at night."

He said his insurance is only covering about half of his rebuilding costs.

“I have the California FAIR Plan, because when they had the 2007 fires, our insurance was canceled even though we weren’t anywhere near there,” Eubank said. “So the only option I had was to sign on with the state of California, and they have kind of a bare-bones policy.”

Still, he and his wife started their rebuilding project with a lot of enthusiasm.

“We’ve done it before. We can do it again,” he said. “And I thought each day would get easier, but actually each day gets harder. Physically, it’s taken a real toll on my wife and I. And if it weren’t for my great neighbors that helped me, we would have probably given up.”

Photo by Susan Murphy

Wayne Veras, a neighbor who is helping Dan Eubank rebuild his San Marcos-area home, cuts pieces of wood to be added to Eubank's house, May 11, 2015. Eubanks home was destroyed in the Cocos fire in May 2014.

Eubank is disabled and can only lift about 10 pounds. Much of the heavy lifting is done by a handful of his devoted neighbors who spend several hours every day helping him construct the home, piece by piece.

“He built our house. And so I’ve known him for a very long time,” said Wayne Veres, a retired college dean who works on the Eubanks' house four days a week.

Veres said he vowed to help Eubank rebuild the night he watched his friend’s home disintegrate in the flames.

“This hill, if you look around, you’ll see his fingerprints on many, many homes,” Veres said. “And so anything we can do to give back to them really is what we’re thinking. It’s not about us. It’s really about helping him out, as he’s helped all of us his whole life.”

Eubank says progress has been slow, but he hopes the house will be completed by next year.

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