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'Still Beautiful' 

by JACOB H. FRIES & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & F & lt;/span & rom a giant window on the seventh floor of Sacred Heart Medical Center, the couple watched as last week's wildfire moved over Dishman Hills. Through plumes of gray smoke they saw trees explode in bursts of orange and red. They gazed in awe until midnight, refusing to consider that the blaze might reach their own home of the past 25 years.

"We didn't want to believe it," recalls Pat Kroetch, 58. She had more important things on her mind: Her husband, Greg, was diagnosed with a rare disease called Wegener's granulomatosis in April, and he's been in and out of hospitals ever since. Sitting by his side, she blocked out thoughts that one of the red explosions could be their home.

She still didn't want to believe it when her son Mike called later on Thursday, saying firefighters had told him that homes on Lewis Lane were among the first to go. "I know it's not true," she recalls thinking. "They must have made a mistake."

The next day, she went with her son to look for herself, but authorities turned them away. They decided to drive to a vista point -- hoping for a glimpse of the house through the trees -- but they couldn't see anything.

Finally, on Saturday, when Kroetch and her son returned, they drove into the neighborhood. There, in front, stood their Lexus, untouched. They had left the SUV in the driveway because the garage was too crowded.

Now, beyond the Lexus, the garage was gone, burned to the ground. So was the sprawling, million-dollar house. It had been so beautiful, tucked away in the woods, their own paradise. The house had been designed like an old-fashioned, wood-frame home with ceramic tile and hardwood floors. The architect made it so that every room had an incredible view and allowed in volumes of light. It reminded Kroetch of the house her own grandmother had lived in, and she enjoyed nothing more than sitting in the family room as the morning sun poured inside.

But now Kroetch walked through the rubble and ash. Except for some cast-iron cookware and a few clay flowerpots, everything was destroyed. The family photos. The keepsakes. The computer holding records for the family restaurant, Percy's Caf & eacute; Americana.

Kroetch thought what a wonderful place it had been to live. Admiring the view again, she said, "It's still beautiful."

She felt lucky, in a way. No one had been hurt, and besides a few things, everything could be replaced. "We're so blessed," she says. "Some people don't have insurance, they don't have a place to call home, they don't have a business and they're just out of luck."

On Monday, Kroetch felt ill -- perhaps it was pneumonia -- but she didn't let it lower her spirits. Her husband's own health seems to be improving, and they're committed to rebuilding. It won't be the same, but it will be home. "There's sadness, but there's certainly no sense of despair," she says, "because we have each other and our families and our friends and it makes you realize what's important."

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