Just two months ago, these women were strangers, but today Debbie Williams holds Anne Gurnee tightly and comforts her as Gurnee sobs over the ashes of her dream house.
Williams and dozens of others who lost their homes in an outbreak of wildfires in Southern California in 2003 are offering their compassion — and their hard-won expertise — to hundreds of victims of October's devastating blazes.
These volunteers call themselves "wildfire mentors," and they will help the latest burned-out homeowners cope with the maddening insurance paperwork and government bureaucracy, deal with contractors, watch out for scams, find bargains on construction materials, and restock their closets and kitchens.
For now, though, Williams' job is mostly emotional support.
"My house was beautiful. I don't understand why this happened. I want somebody to tell me why this happened," Gurnee says, tears streaming down her face. "It's hard to think about tomorrow, you know?"
Williams supplies Gurnee with a tissue and wipes away her own tears, too.
"It helps when all the ashes get taken away," she says softly. "You can do this. I know you can."
Faced with fire
More than 2,000 homes burned in this fall's fires, and seven people were killed by the flames.
Williams and her husband were paired with Gurnee, her boyfriend and the couple's 8-year-old son through the Cedar Fire Recovery Group, a 150-member network of 2003 fire survivors.
Other support groups have popped up after major wildfires — in Scripps Ranch, Oakland, Malibu and Pasadena, for example — but few endured as long or grew as close as the Cedar Fire one.
The group sought out experts for advice on such things as roofing, landscaping and navigating the county's permit process. Members negotiated group discounts at hardware stores, shared tips, held potluck suppers and threw a party each time one of them moved into a rebuilt home.
Weekly attendance dwindled until this fall's wildfires gave the Cedar Fire veterans new purpose. They fanned out at shelters where evacuees gathered, set up tables at assistance fairs and soon were pairing up with the newest members of what they jokingly call "the most expensive club on Earth."
"You see the commercials on TV where the house burns down and the house just goes, whoosh, and they're back in the driveway playing," Williams says. "Well, it doesn't happen like that. We're trying to teach these people that you need to be your own best advocate."
For Gurnee, a landlord and stay-at-home mother, the help couldn't have come fast enough. At their first meeting, Williams reviewed the insurance policy on Gurnee's hilltop home in San Diego County and found she was badly underinsured.
Williams has spoken with Gurnee at least once a week since, helping her with the initial claims process and giving her clothes, kitchen supplies and a shoulder to cry on.
Helping other victims
"The first time we met, she came in wearing the only pair of shoes she owned and it was such a flashback for me," Williams says. "She cried at everything, and it was like, `I remember that.' We don't want them to go through the same things we did."
It took the Williamses four years to rebuild their two-story home in El Cajon, a nightmare of false steps, scam artists and litigation that still leaves Williams in tears.
A messenger service lost their first set of designs, and their second designer dodged their calls for months before admitting that he had lost their second set of plans. They lost more than $12,000 in the process and paid $60,000 to lawyers who wrestled with their insurance company. The family just recently moved into their new home.
For Gurnee, however, the first step is getting past her anger and depression. She is bitter that her home burned even though they had cleared 8 1/2 acres of brush around it and had a fire-resistant roof.
She says Williams is one of the few people who can grasp what she is going through.
"She understands," Gurnee says. "She cries with me."