In the wake of Lilac fire’s destruction, family tries to pick up the pieces

Jerry Yang stands at the ruins of his parents’ home in Bonsall along Lilac Road after the Lilac Fire destroyed many homes in the area. The Yang family moved to the home in 1981 and used the property to breed exotic finch birds. Around 10,000 birds were all lost in the fire. Shane Gibson photo

Hardly anything was left of Jerry Yang and Jenni Southwell’s childhood home in Bonsall Tuesday as they sifted through the rubble, ash and twisted metal that had been left behind from the 4,100 acre Lilac fire that blazed through the area.

Amid the ash there were some recognizable items: ceramic bowls, some kitchenware and antique clay figures were left intact. Still, much of the rest of the home and surrounding buildings where their parents raised roughly 10,000 finch birds for their business were gone.

All the birds perished, as did years of memories, keepsakes and collectibles.

Southwell was still processing the surreal scene days after the fire.

“I haven’t been sleeping well because I keep waking up in the middle of the night thinking is this real? Did this really happen?” Southwell, 43, said.





The blaze

The home, like many in the area, was consumed by flames that were powered by strong Santa Ana winds Thursday, Dec. 7. Yang and Southwell’s parents, 65-year-old Michael Yang and 63-year-old Jing Yang, were not in the area when the fire sparked. Their mother, a breast cancer survivor, was getting medical treatment outside the country.

Yang who lives three houses down from his parents, watched as the flames crept toward his neighborhood, but he had no choice to leave things up to fate. His children were being evacuated from nearby Bonsall Elementary School and Sullivan Middle School.

“The fire was right over Sullivan,” Yang, 41, said. “All the children were outside, waiting to get picked up.”

He got what he could from the home before going to get his children.

“I didn’t know where they hid everything,” Yang said of his parents. “So, I couldn’t grab all their valuables or anything else. We just grabbed the dogs and left.”

A little after 3:15 p.m. is when Yang got a call from his neighbor with terrible news: though his house was still safe, his parents’ house was on fire.

The family waited in the River Village Plaza for the blaze to pass, but as it persisted they traveled to San Marcos to stay at Southwell’s home.

Southwell said she saw the home ablaze in news reports.

“It just hit me, like, ‘oh my God, it’s so real. It’s final,’” Southwell said.

The aftermath

Yang returned the next morning to find nothing left of his parent’s home. He had been hoping that least one of the four surrounding buildings where the finches and some larger exotic birds lived was left standing, but there was nothing left.

Inside the home, years of keepsakes spanning back to the 1980s were destroyed, including Southwell’s cleats, posters, cassette tapes and other items that she had left with her parents, thinking they would be there and the home would always be there.

Yang and Southwell’s older brother, who lives with their parents, lost many of his tools and supplies for his home remodeling business in the blaze as well.

“A house can always be rebuilt,” Yang said. “What’s devastating is all those birds, all those lives lost. Those are irreplaceable. You can’t rebuild that.”

Before the fire, Yang worked at his parents’ bird business and had cared for them for years.

“I grew up with them all,” he said. “They felt like family to me. I spent every single day with them.”

Yang said he’s talked to his parents about the destruction of their home and business.

“They’re trying to stay strong – strong, positive,” Yang said. “They’re devastated of course, and they would like all this cleaned up before they come home. They’ll be home on the 20th but it doesn’t seem it’s going to be possible to get it all done within a week.”

The family says they’re apprehensive about rebuilding and working with the insurance company, a process they’ve never navigated before.

“The rebuilding is so daunting,” Southwell said. “We went to a town hall meeting in Vista and there are things that you don’t even think about. You need a permit for the house, you need a permit for a septic tank, you need a permit for everything. And it’s going to be so daunting just rebuilding the house.”

Southwell said the loss of the home and the birds has hit her hard.

“The last few days I haven’t been able to sleep, eat, open up my Facebook or even talk on the phone with anybody really,” she said. “It’s been so devastating.”

She said that when she finally opened her Facebook, she was shocked by how many people had lost their homes also, including people she knows.

“My heart goes out to just everybody who has lost everything too,” she said.

A home and business for decades

The family, recent immigrants from Taiwan, moved to Bonsall in 1981 and started their finch business because their English was limited and they were looking for a way to support themselves. They had a passion for birds.

As time went on the business grew and additional space was made on the property for more buildings to house the birds.

Southwell said that if she wanted to talk to her parents she knew that more often than not, they would be in one of the buildings tending to the birds.

“I never went into the house to look for them,” she said with a laugh.

Southwell said her two daughters, Chyna and Cali, loved visiting their grandparents house, especially as little girls, because of all the animals there, including the birds, family dogs and reptiles.

The future

Yang says the business will not be what it was before when his parents start back up. It took years for his parents to have the number of birds they did.

He said he doesn’t think he will continue with the family business full time, either.

“I’m going to look around and see what my skills are and what job opportunities there are out there,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be part time now.”

Southwell said her parents are looking toward the future.

“For my mom, she’s already talking about what kinds of finches she wants to breed,” Southwell said. “So, she’s starting her healing process and we all have to move on and turn the page and for her, that’s what she needs to heal.”

Southwell said as non-native English speakers it would have been hard for her parents to attend the town hall meeting and navigate the process of pulling permits.

“Thank God that we have each other that we can help them rebuild,” she said.

A GoFundMe has been set up for the family and had raised nearly $6,000 as of press time.

To help the family, visit www.gofundme.com/lilac-fire-yang-family-home-farm.

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