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Regrowing Pains : Houses Slowly Rising Again in Neighborhood Devastated by Brush Fire

Times Staff Writer

Aliso Canyon and the brown hills overlooking it have begun to green again. Only an occasional blackened shrub serves as a reminder of a fire that swept through the Porter Ranch area three months ago. Next door, on residential Beaufait Avenue, the recovery is slower.

“It feels like life is on hold until we come back here,” said Steve Friedman, 46, who is about a month away from starting a new house on his lot.

“We’re over the despair and sadness--and now it’s hope. We’re going to build a new house, bigger and better, with the wall sockets where we want them and the telephones where we want them,” he said with a laugh.

The Dec. 9 fire, of unknown origin, was driven by Santa Ana winds and scorched 3,200 acres above Granada Hills and Northridge, destroying 15 homes and damaging 25 others. Fire officials estimated damage at $4.3 million.

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Exclusive Tract

All but four of the homes were in two blocks of Beaufait Avenue, an exclusive neighborhood of $400,000 tract homes built in the early 1970s. Residents lost everything from computers to family photos to homing pigeons to palm trees. A few families have started rebuilding. Others are still waiting for insurance companies, architects and contractors.

Friedman’s wife, Ann, had been going to look at their empty lot every day. “But recently, two other people have already started building, so it’s kind of depressing.”

“A lot of people, including even friends, say, ‘Well, you get a new house, you get to buy new clothes, furniture,’ ” said Linda Struthoff, whose five-bedroom home next to the canyon burned to the ground. But “you don’t just go to a store and say, ‘I’ll take this and that,’ and put your house together in a week or a month. All the warmth you can’t replace.”

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Turning onto Beaufait from Reseda Boulevard today, the houses look cozy, the lawns manicured, the street clean. The canyon below holds fast-growing ryegrass, planted by the city after the fire to prevent erosion, and the sproutings of the natural grass.

But farther up Beaufait, roofing trucks, dumpsters and signs such as “Another Home Insured by Allstate” dot the street.

The early-morning fire hopscotched across the neighborhood. Through a combination of quirky wind, luck, and the difference between tile and wood roofs, some houses emerged unscathed while others next door were gutted.

Afterward, Steve Friedman said, neighbors who didn’t lose anything “felt guilty talking to us. They couldn’t look you in the eye.”

“The worst was the night of the fire,” said Nedda Hartenstein, 37, whose front bushes were charred but whose house was untouched. “All the neighbors were coming back to get their belongings and go to hotels, and here I am, going shopping at Alpha Beta and life is normal.”

Although the homeowners have insurance, some have applied for federal Small Business Adminstration loans, up to $100,000 for real estate and $20,000 for personal property not covered by insurance. George Camp, deputy area director for the SBA Disaster Assistance Office, said 10 Northridge residents, including some on Beaufait, have applied.

Starting Over

Those who were burned out spent several weeks trying to get copies of lost documents, finding rental housing that would accept dogs and starting new wardrobes.

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Tom Nassiri, a manager for Unum Co., went to work the next Monday wearing the same clothes he had worn Friday as he ran from his house: black shirt and black slacks, “not exactly a suit.”

Linda and Eric Struthoff and their two daughters moved into a four-bedroom Porter Ranch rental house, sleeping on inflatable mattresses for six nights.

“We didn’t know we could rent furniture through the insurance company,” said Linda Struthoff, 40. “There should be a book on what to do. . . . We really didn’t know what to do at a time when you can’t even think.”

Christmas plans changed. The Friedmans and their sons, Eric and David, described to each other the presents destroyed by the fire, enacting the adage, “It’s the thought that counts,” as Steve Friedman pointed out.

Staying in Home

John and Madi Impellizzeri stuck it out in their house, despite holes in the roof and waterlogged carpets, so their two children could continue car-pooling to school, said John Impellizzeri, 46.

“The carpeting, floor were soaked, so you’d squish, squish,” he recalled. During the weeklong wait for the carpet company to come, “the mildew smelled like three dead dogs.”

Before the roof was repaired, wind would whip aside the plywood and plastic covering, letting the rain drip in. “I used to sleep in the fields when I was in the Army, so it’s no big deal,” he said.

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Even now, months after the fire, people say that they lack many material goods--but that they aren’t so important. “Why have five VCRs?” asked Steve Friedman, scanning the tarp-covered swimming pool, scorched tree and regenerating ivy on his lot. “I had built a storage room just to store stuff--why save it?”

Did the family really have five VCRs? Friedman threw up his hands. “Probably five or so. It’s stupid, it really is.”

Buying Basics

Those who used to shop until they dropped are only now starting to return to the malls with any enthusiasm. “Some of the shopping fun is taken away because most of the things are so taken for granted: sheets, mattress pads, pots, towels, hair dryer, shaving cream,” Linda Struthoff said.

“It’s a chore,” she said, when “you need everything.”

Residents have found different techniques for coping. Eric Friedman, 20, said his Cal State Northridge fraternity brothers will suggest going swimming at his home. “And they’ll say, ‘We’ll have a barbecue there.’ Somebody will say, ‘We already had a barbecue there.’ You have to be able to laugh at it.”

Grasping for something to bring back fond memories, Linda Struthoff bought a hammock like the one that used to hang between two trees in the back yard, where browned patio furniture and singed Corning Ware dishes now lie. “I don’t know why I bought it because the trees burned and it’ll take years to grow back. It didn’t dawn on me until later that it makes no sense,” she said.

Roost for Pigeons

Homing pigeons owned by Homa and Margaret Larijani roost on Beaufait rooftops, even though the Larijanis are now renting a house on Tampa Avenue. Two of their four pigeons died after the fire, probably from smoke inhalation, and the Larijanis bought and trained more. Homa Larijani now returns to the remains of their home every day to feed the birds. “They just fly around and come back. They only know this house,” he said.

Psychologically, the neighborhood is closer, residents say. Before, Linda Struthoff said, she and Ann Friedman, who lives across the street, would just say “hi and bye as you’re backing up the car.” Now, added Friedman, “we’re on the phone a lot.”

On New Year’s Eve, the Friedmans invited the “Beaufait Burnouts” to a party and a showing of a video of the fire. In February, there was a dinner at the Porter Ranch Country Club. A block party to thank police and firefighters is planned for August.


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