[moving forward]
Up in Smoke
Faith is the key to moving forward after Witch Creek Fire
by Ryan T. Blystone
Despite losing two homes in October’s wildfires, Valerie and Matt Jauregui and their children, Rose (far right), Matthew and Maryanne are thankful that the small chapel on the family ranch remains intact. Their faith has helped them in the rebuilding process.

The narrow, uneven, dusty road tests the off-road capabilities of the vehicle. Another turn here, a steep hill there. Despite the obstacles, the Ford Expedition, driven by Valerie Jauregui ‘86, shows no sign of struggle. It’s familiar territory. The SUV pulls into a makeshift parking spot next to the charred remains of a home on a hill that overlooks the family’s ranch in unincorporated Escondido. Jauregui, accompanied by the oldest of three children, 14-year-old Rose, isn’t fazed by the drive.

“It’s not a problem. We came in the road that’s longer and rougher. There’s another road that’s easier.”

Taking the easy route likely never entered her mind. When you’ve lost two homes in the Witch Creek Fire, the largest blaze of those that burned throughout San Diego County last fall, nothing’s easy. Not even shopping.

“You’re at Wal-Mart, going up and down the aisles, and say to yourself, ‘I need everything.’”

But Jauregui and her husband, Matt, also a USD graduate, are making sure their family moves forward. They took shelter in another home on the ranch, where Matt’s sister, Mary, who has a family of 10, resides.

The 280-acre ranch, the central residence to nearly 50 family members, lost five other homes — belonging to two of Matt’s brothers, two nephews and a niece — to the fire. Of the seven homes, only Matt’s brother, Jim, had fire insurance.

“Everybody’s spirits are good,” Valerie says. “We’re so thankful for the open door and to stay as long as we need.” The fire also destroyed cars, including Matt’s 1953 Chevy truck he drove as a student at USD. The family’s pregnant Australian Shepherd, Lacy, died from smoke inhalation when she was accidentally trapped in one of the homes Matt and other relatives tried to save.

“She was my son Matthew’s best friend,” Valerie says. Other ranch animals — cattle, pigs, chickens and llamas — did survive.

A small chapel, with its crucifix and colorful tapestries, was spared. “Luke (Matt’s brother-in-law) says Mass here sometimes. Most of the kids have been baptized here, and we’ve had a few marriages,” Valerie says. “We’re really thankful it didn’t burn down.”

Rose offers her explanation: “It’s God’s house.”

Matt and Valerie married in 1989 at Founders Chapel, but spiritually, they’ve been together since their first date. Their relationship strengthened, even as Valerie, who earned USD degrees in political science and Spanish and a paralegal credential, spent three years in Northern California to participate in a Jesuit volunteer corps and obtain a law degree. Matt received his USD degrees in international relations and Spanish, in 1987, and earned his J.D. in 1990.

Devotion to faith, raising their children and living close to extended family have played a big role in the couple’s joy. And the ranch encompassed everything.

Matt and his relatives were determined to battle the Witch Creek Fire that started Oct. 21. “We decided Valerie and the kids needed to evacuate,” Matt recalls. “We woke up the kids and told them to pack clothes. Valerie and the kids left at 4 a.m. My brothers and I, the older nephews and my father stayed. We were determined to save our homes.”

The fire made its mark in the wee hours of Oct. 23, hitting the home of Matt’s brother, Pete. Matt, Pete and his son-in-law Derek went to the scene to battle the blaze with a water truck. They were quickly overwhelmed.

“We held T-shirts against our mouths because it was so hot and difficult to breathe,” Matt recalls. They retreated to a steel cargo container, but, in the process, lost the water truck and the house.

The destruction had a domino effect. Matt said four other homes “simultaneously burst into flames” because of a firewall three to four miles long. The men fled to save the most important piece of ranch property.

“We were exhausted, but we were determined not to lose the ranch house where we’d all been raised,” Matt says. “By God’s grace, the ranch house, granny flat and my sister’s house were saved.”

The fire’s damage is forcing a major rebuilding effort for 2008, but the power of family, faith and their future is helping them cope. “None of the children and most of the adults don’t want to move into the city,” Matt says. “Valerie and I would not take our children off the ranch because we felt that while we lost our houses, the ranch was still our home. The ranch is like a hub for the family.”