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An artist whose home was among first devoured by Creek fire reflects on her loss

Cindy Betzer Pharis woke from a lighter-than-usual sleep and looked out the bedroom windows of her home on a hillside off Kagel Canyon Road. She saw only orange.
Orange embers. Orange flames. Orange smoke. Nothing but orange on three sides of the house.
Art instructor Cindy Betzer Pharis stands with some of her students’ ceramic creations in her classroom at Valencia High School in Valencia on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. An accomplished artist, Pharis lost her home near Sylmar in the Creek Fire. A high school art instructor, (Photo by Dan Watson / SCNG)Art instructor Cindy Betzer Pharis, right, is surprised with a card created by her Advanced Placement Studio Art students along with snacks and a bed for Pharis’s Wirehaired Dachshund named Sketch at the end of class at Valencia High School in Valencia on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. An accomplished artist, Pharis lost her home near Sylmar in the Creek Fire. (Photo by Dan Watson / SCNG)Ashes are all that remains of the home where Cindy Betzer Pharis had lived for 20 years at the end of Hadler Drive in Kagel Canyon, on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG) . .Art instructor Cindy Betzer Pharis hugs her Wirehaired Dachshund, Sketch, in her art classroom at Valencia High School in Valencia on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. An accomplished artist, Pharis lost her home near Sylmar in the Creek Fire. A high school art instructor, (Photo by Dan Watson / SCNG)Artist Cindy Betzer Pharis lost her home near Sylmar in the Creek Fire. A high school art instructor, she prepares the materials for the next day’s ceramics class in her classroom at Valencia High School in Valencia on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. (Photo by Dan Watson / SCNG)Show Caption of Expand
Her home on Hadler Drive near Sylmar would be among the first consumed by the Creek fire that as of Thursday, Dec. 7, had destroyed 15 structures and torched more than 12,600 acres in parts of the Angeles National Forest and northern San Fernando Valley.
Luckily, the fire has claimed no lives. But Pharis had a close call when the fire erupted early Tuesday morning.
Her one thought at the sight of all that orange: Time to go.
As she scrambled out of her pajama bottoms and into a pair of leggings, a neighbor banged on her front door and yelled: “Get out! Get out!”
She only had time to throw a jacket over her flannel pajama top, slip into a pair of shoes, grab her Dachshund and a leash, and jump into her Honda Pilot. No purse, no laptop or iPad, no clothing other than what she wore.
“I was thinking and saying I hope we can make it to the car before we get burned up. That’s all I was thinking.”
Just days after the frantic escape with her dog Sketch from the embers and flames that incinerated her home, what’s gone and never coming back is still sinking in. She has almost nothing left, but realizes that she didn’t lose everything.
A visual artist and a teacher, Pharis, 61, lost more than the L-shaped house on the hillside where she had lived for two decades in peaceful surroundings. She lost a home filled with her work and that of her students, and the many eclectic art works she collected from her travels or traded for with other artists.
She lost the porch that wrapped around the house, a perfect spot for watching sunsets with a glass of iced tea and the company of friends. Two stories in the front and three in the back; on days without fog or smog, the view stretched to Catalina Island.
Pharis lost dozens of sketchbooks that she had kept since her college days. She lost poems and stories she’d written dating back to adolescence, and the chance to work on so many unfinished thoughts and rough drafts she had hoped to return to next year after a planned retirement from 38 years of teaching.
Gone, too, is the moccasin that belonged to her grandmother’s grandmother, a pure Winnemem Wintu, a tribe indigenous to Northern California. Pharis liked to display it as its own work of art.
She also lost her beloved art studio that she designed, a 700-square-foot workspace with a slate floor. It had a hand-built gigantic drawing desk, cabinets from an old kitchen bought secondhand, shelving supposedly from the Will Rogers estate that held more than 300 books along two walls. French doors and windows gave her a view of the hillside and easy exit to work outdoors.
“It was the most perfect studio in the world.” And, finally able to invest in the good stuff she always had wanted as a mixed-media artist, “I had all the best art supplies.”
Pharis is not boasting when she describes all this. She’s just answering questions about what was there inside her house.
It was her ex-husband’s idea to build a home there in upper Kagel Canyon, three miles north of the 210 freeway, on the other side of the San Gabriel Mountains. When they divorced several years ago, she bought him out and stayed. He went to live in Tennessee with his new wife.
She laughs.
“My daughter says we’re both in the smokey mountains now.”
Her tears are curbed with such doses of black humor.
And with perspective.
She has lived through worse than losing her house.
Earlier this year, she lost her nephew, who killed himself. She got through what would have been his 40th birthday just the day before the fire erupted. She had watched him grow up, then witnessed her sister’s pain and grief at his death.
Loss of life is what wounds the heart, she says with a shaky voice.
Pharis ruminates about the fire: “I just keep thinking, OK, yeah, this is a weird one, this is a tough one. But it’s not my first rodeo. Losing my nephew was a lot tougher than this.
“Maybe this will make me question my life. Maybe it will make me question who I am. But I cannot imagine a mother’s grief, to lose a child.”
That morning of the fire, she barely escaped, hardly able to see as she drove through the smoke, her dog hacking in the backseat.
Pharis turned back one way in her four-wheel drive only to run into flames again. Finally, a firefighter told her to just race through.
She got out unscathed and headed for her classroom at Valencia High in Valencia, where she has taught art since 2002. It seemed like a safe place to go. Being there might help relax her, and she could watch the news during breaks as the day unfolded. As it turned out, the electricity went on and off at school because of another fire burning in Santa Clarita.
She didn’t know it then, but her 4,000-square-foot home with the hand-hewn oak plank floors and so many other touches she and her ex-husband had crafted would be engulfed within 10 minutes of her departure.
Pharis didn’t learn of her loss until hours later after piecing together bits of information from a Facebook group page that she peeked at during breaks at school. A roundabout relay message confirmed the sad news when neighbors got word to a mutual friend in Mexico, who contacted one of Pharis’s daughters in Maryland, who then reached her other daughter in Sherman Oaks.
Her friends and her students have started GoFundMe accounts for her. Pharis is moved by that gesture and all the touching thoughts they have posted.
“Cindy Betzer Pharis is one of the most genuine, gracious and kind souls on this earth,” wrote one woman who said she still cherishes a portrait Pharis painted of her daughter. “An extremely talented artist and giving teacher, she has spread the joy of the arts for decades.”
This week, Pharis planned to spend the school nights with colleagues who live near campus. On the weekend, she’ll sleep at her daughter’s apartment in Sherman Oaks. After that? She’s not sure.
“I’ll try to figure out what for next week. I don’t even know. That’s the weird thing.”
She’s contacted her insurance company and keeps a pad of paper handy to jot a list of her belongings as things come to mind. It will take more than $700,000 to rebuild. But money can’t recover its peaceful essence.
The house sat on one acre of land. Pharis thinks about the wildlife that roamed outdoors — deer, possums, raccoons. Bobcats and mountain lions occasionally visited her yard. That those animals probably didn’t escape the fire makes her voice crack again.
“We can get away. They don’t have the option,” Pharis says. “I can’t even go there in my head yet.”
She was glad to have her dog to protect, a 4-year-old, standard wirehaired Dachshund with a beard and eyebrows. Sketch is long and, at 42 pounds, barely off the ground on her stubby legs. The poor dog had trouble breathing with all the smoke from the fire.
“I knew I had to get her out of there,” Pharis says. “I was grateful because I had something to protect. That spurred me on.”
Funny thoughts also cross her mind. Why did she grab a pair of purple shoes instead of more sensible black ones or brown ones? Or why not the beautiful pair of boots she bought during a trip in April to New York?
She’ll be able to make copies of photos she lost, but not the two most dear to her — one of each of her daughters taken the day they were born and she first held them. She’d take the photos out for a look often, especially those times when her daughters irritated her, as children can do at any age: “I’d remake that connection with them in my head.”
Her art is all about making connections. She once described it this way: “I am a mixed media visual artist whose work is about connections that human beings make or don’t make through language, a gesture, a look, an expression, physical placement, cultural values, standards, emotions, and desires.”
That’s what she nurtured in her sketchbooks. She knows that she will create art, however painful, from this loss she is feeling now.
“I’m sure I will be drawing and writing about it for a long time to come.”
Source: Oc Register

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