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After the Fire: Rebuilding from Ashes

An update on life after the Cook Historic Barn came down.

EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s not often San Juan Capistrano experiences a murder or a major structure fire. To have both the same day made Dec. 1, 2011, all the more rare. This is the second of a two-part series, updating those two events. Read Part 1 here.

Not long after the coroner’s office shuttled the body of murder victim Bobby Ray Rainwater away Dec. 1, 2011, large plumes of thick, dark smoke appeared over the rooflines at the San Juan Mobile Estates park.

It was the , there was little anyone could do.

As firefighters braved the extreme heat, winds and flames that rose 20 feet in the air, Teresa Cook approached the scene, hand over her face, dropping to one knee, and cried out in agony.

It wasn’t just a piece of family property that had once stretched across the valley or even just a barn where she kept her heirloom chickens.

With the economic downturn, the barn was home to her two young children, their father and her. Everything they owned was gone.

They may never know why.

“The cause of the fire is still undetermined as the investigators were unable to enter the building due to the amount of damage,” said Battalion Chief Kris Concepcion of the Orange County Fire Authority.

After the fire, the displaced family was overwhelmed by donations and offers to help. They found refuge in temporary housing and the love of the community, Cook said. They were eventually able to move into a home near Mission San Juan Capistrano.

“The donations, as you know, poured in and fully furnished our home. The kids and us got more clothes and things than we could have ever used,” she said. “The leftovers we donated to Craig Sterling (Out of Africa thrift store in Capo Beach) whose proceeds go to his men’s recovery homes.  

“I still struggle with losing all of our memorabilia, photos and stuff. I will probably always miss those things. Some of the pictures are as clear as day in my mind. I wonder if I will lose the images in my head over time.”

Since the barn was built in the late 1890s, the Cook family has produced many heirs, and not all of them agreed initially what to do with the ¾-acre property. Eventually, however, they decided to sell it.

Cook told Patch this week that there are two offers pending. One bidder would build another senior living facility – Del Obispo Terrace is right next door – and another would make the property more park-like, to create nicer entryway for the existing senior housing.

“Neither buyer is interested in the farm use or chicken use even in a small way so far,” said Cook, who before the fire had visions of farming the land to feed the poor and raising chickens to educate children in the ways of the past.

About 80 birds of rare breeds are still living on the property, but Cook – a member of the American Livestock Breed Conservancy who started the T.Cook Heritage Breed Preservation Center and the T.Cook Heritage Breed Foundation to care for the chickens and propagate their lineage – is making arrangements for new homes in San Juan Capistrano.

“I may be the only person in California starting an Auburn Java breeding program," she said. She's hoping some find homes at Zoomars Petting Zoo while still others find place in the orange groves behind the city's new wine-tasting room.

"My goal is to raise the birds to maturity and have a significant hen population for rare heritage breed eggs, free range and to be able to supply eggs/meat to the needy population” through such organizations as Family Assistance Ministries, Kathy’s House and Ocean Hills Church, Cook said.

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