When the Embers Die Down . . . Recovery Begins

ClaremontIt might be soon to talk about recovery as the tragedy unfolds, but Southern Californians do rebuild after fires. I’m sure Claremont residents Vern and Deb Jahnke, who lost their house in the 2003 Grand Prix Fire, are thinking about and praying for (he’s a minister, after all) the victims of any recent fires.

After their house burned, the Jahnkes wanted to sell their charred lot and move on. But then they got excited about the prospect of building a “green” home they could grow old in, and a fire-resistant one.

In the bottom photo, you see the burnt house, which was covered with wood shingles. Very flammable wood shingles.

In the top photo, you see the house risen from the ashes, with these fire-resistant qualities:

• Stucco exterior
• Tile roof
• Dual-pane windows
• No soffits

Also, you may notice the exposed wood on the exterior, which is typically a no-no for fire-prone areas. In order for the wood to be allowed by codes, it had to be of a certain thickness (notice how thick the posts and beams are?) so it will be very slow to burn if a fire comes this way again.

If you or someone you know faces fire tragedy today, it’s not just the Jahnkes who are praying for you — millions of us are.

See the Jahnkes in their new kitchen and read the full story:


Were it not for the wildfire that gutted their Claremont house, Deb and Vern Jahnke still might be buying fixer-uppers, flipping them and then moving on to the next one.

After the Grand Prix fire of 2003 incinerated their 1948 post-and-beam home — remodeled with lots of glass and wood-shingle siding — the couple’s first thought was to “sell the lot and get out of here,” Deb recalled.

But after a chance meeting with a green-leaning architect, the couple decided to rebuild, this time creating a home oriented to take advantage of the sun’s rays and the cooling afternoon breezes. And, of course, it would be fire resistant.


The 3,000-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-story Mission-style home with a Craftsman interior is such a pleasant, comfortable place to live that the Jahnkes have lost their desire to keep moving. In fact, since moving in last year, they’ve started talking about growing old there.

The couple’s saga began on a fall afternoon more than 3 1/2 years ago when Vern Jahnke, a counselor and former minister, nailed the final board onto his new deck and settled in to watch the fifth game of the World Series. That same day, Deb, a speech therapist, noted that her to-do list for the house was done.

It was time, the couple thought, to put the house up for sale and buy another fixer.

Those plans changed early the next morning, when windblown sparks from the fire reduced their house to ashes. The Jahnkes’ street had been evacuated earlier that night, so no one was injured. But other than some clothes, family scrapbooks, school supplies, a laptop computer and their dog, the Jahnkes lost everything.

During the three years that followed, the couple found themselves on the receiving end of what Vern calls “a whole system of underground generosity.”


Five local churches, including their own, La Verne Church of the Brethren, raised $20,000. Local Buddhists gave the couple $500. And Deb said that every time she turned around, it seemed like she was getting another bag full of household goods from friends and co-workers.

“It was like yard sales coming to me,” the garage-sale devotee said. “The emotional support was phenomenal.”

And that support was critical in getting the couple through their long ordeal.

To pay for their new house, the couple used insurance money, plus a $250,000 loan from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They also divided their 160-square-foot lot and sold half, which left them with a good-size parcel that was 80 by 160 feet.

The front portion is level, with the back dropping off toward a canyon.

It was on this flat section that their architect, Mark von Wodtke of Claremont Environmental Design Group, suggested siting the new house to take advantage of afternoon breezes that would cool the home during Claremont’s hot summers. The design started with a roofline precisely oriented for solar panels to take full advantage of the sun’s daily arc across the sky. From there, the design flowed.

Most homes start with a footprint on the ground, Vern noted. Von Wodtke “started with a footprint in the air; we designed down and out.”

To encourage natural air flow that would make air conditioning virtually unnecessary, the home was designed with an open floor plan, with the kitchen and living room on the ground floor, an open staircase leading to a den loft, and a pair of clerestory windows in the highest part of the ceiling. When the house starts warming up, the front door can be opened to take in the afternoon breezes, which sweep warm air up and out of the house.

What also makes this natural climate control possible is the super insulating nature of the home’s Rastra block walls — they’re made of rebar-reinforced concrete and recycled Styrofoam. Vern researched each of the green materials that went into the house to discover what they were made of, how they were made and where.

“We started getting into it,” he said. The Rastra block, he discovered, is mixed and poured into forms in Arizona.

For the floors, the couple decided on bamboo fibers compressed and baked into tongue-and-groove boards that are installed and cut like wood. For the upstairs loft, the couple chose a completely biodegradable corn-based carpeting by Mohawk that they had discovered at the Minnesota State Fair.

Because of budget restraints, the Jahnkes could not afford every upscale green product available. But they did manage to include a good number. For example, the counters are Richlite, a hard, solid-surface product made of recycled newsprint and resin. In her comparison shopping, Deb found the environmentally friendly product to be less expensive than granite but more expensive than Formica.

As the construction of the house inched forward, the couple were holed up in a one-bedroom apartment with various relatives and their elderly dog. Frustrations over permits and the snail’s pace of construction were disheartening, Deb recalled. The house burned down in October 2003, and the design process didn’t begin until the following March. Ground wasn’t broken until June 2005 and construction then took an additional 18 months.

“The whole time we were in that apartment, we were kicking ourselves, saying we should have just sold the lot and moved on,” Deb said.

But the couple persevered, and after moving into their new home, they started to appreciate the beauty of its design and the solidity of its construction.

“This is a quality house,” Deb said.

The final price tag was about $700,000, including design fees, complex site work involving pylons set into bedrock and a septic system.

With the house complete, the couple opened it up for meetings and tours, pointing out the grid-tied electrical meter that often spins backward when the solar panels produce more electricity than the house can use. Although dozens of other homes burned in the area, the Jahnkes’ is among the first to be rebuilt, and they hope others will follow their green example.

But with a new house, Deb faces a problem familiar to serial remodelers who find their home improvement days behind them: “I’m wondering what my next project will be.”

* * *

Source book

Architects: Mark von Wodtke, principal, Erik G. Peterson, architect, Claremont Environmental Design Group, Claremont, (909) 625-3916

Builder: Oasis Design & Construction, Claremont, (909) 625-3916

Solar: Energy Harvester, Claremont, (909) 625-3326, www.energyharvester.com

Framing and wall material: Rastra Block, Scottsdale, Ariz., (877) 935-3545, www.rastra.com

Counters: Richlite Co., Tacoma, Wash., (888) 383 5533, www.richlite.com

Flooring: Hilo Bamboo, San Marcos, Calif., (760) 598-3988, www.hilobamboo.com