Article & Research by Allison Garton:
In San Diego County, fire is a certainty. However, arson is an unnecessary tragedy. The property owned by the County of San Diego with oversight and/or management by other preservation organizations, has changed hands many times. In 1893, it was owned by John MacVane. Dr. George Brace purchased the property but deeded it to his wife, Marta Oatman Brace, in 1932. It was around this timeframe that the Craftsman-style house was built, partially by locally-sourced stones. Marta Brace sold the property to James and Barbara Hollis in 1946 and they sold the property to Walter and Geraldine Nass in 1951. Adnan Derbas purchased the beautiful home overlooking Lake Hodges from the Nass family and his son still lived on the property when it was destroyed by the 1997 Del Dios Fire.
Steve Robles was convicted of starting seven fires during 1997 and sentenced to eighteen years in prison. He admitted that he would start fires in order to be a first responder on the scene and viewed as a hero… all in hopes to get a position as a firefighter. The day that the 1930-era Craftsman was destroyed, two other houses were saved, in part by Robles himself. In 2007, while out on parole, Steve Robles coincidentally battled the Witch Creek fire as it swept through Del Dios. He was quickly relieved of his duties as a volunteer when recognized as an arsonist by a fireman.
The house had been deemed historically significant and that complicated all rebuilding efforts by the Derbas family. In the early 2000s, a decision was made to sell the 345 acre site to a developer. Community efforts and donations convinced Mr. Derbas, a businessman and environmentalist, to sell the property for less than market value so that it could be preserved for Nature.
Chaparral-covered and beautiful, the 345 acre preserve beckons hikers eager to test their endurance on the old road to an overlook for calming views of Olivenhain Reservoir in the adjacent Elfin Forest Preserve. An ambitious day filled with miles of trails can be planned from Del Dios Highlands into Elfin Forest. There are many archaeological sites included within the preserve, but they are unmarked to preserve their integrity. Stone ruins, terraced gardens, two dams, a mine shaft, and a pictograph all await explorers.
Previous residents reported feelings of unease at the house. Currently, the stone ruins are beautifully preserved in an arrested state of decay and free of graffiti. Let’s keep them that way… Del Dios, indeed.
Personal Experience: This is one of those locations that many of you have passed by dozens, if not hundreds, of times and yet most likely have never noticed. I am not going to spotlight the location to help preserve it. If you want to see it bad enough you will find it. It’s a fun place for photographers and it’s always more enjoyable to visit a place once you know its history. Thank you to Allison Garton for the research and tip off to this spot.