A SIEGE OF FIRE : Where Rows of New Houses Hide the Pain : Porter Ranch aftermath: Victims of the December, 1988, blaze know all too well what those of the Santa Barbara and Glendale disasters are enduring.
Sindhu Sidharta has been waiting nearly eight weeks for his front door to be delivered by contractors, and on Friday his daily vigil at his house’s construction site ended in disappointment yet again. Still no door.
It was just one more delay in more than 18 months of delays in his life and the rebuilding of his house since Dec. 9, 1988, when a devastating fire swept out of the hills north of Porter Ranch and through Sidharta’s neighborhood on Beaufait Avenue.
Sidharta’s home was one of 40 de stroyed or damaged. And his family is one of only three whose residences are still not ready.
As the rebuilding of Beaufait Avenue nears completion, the neighborhood offers a telling look at what is in store for the victims of this week’s disastrous fires that cut an awesome path of destruction through Glendale and Santa Barbara.
When Sidharta grew tired of waiting for the front door to be delivered Friday and left the construction site for the rented house where his family temporarily lives, he held his frustration in check. He had things in perspective.
“At least I am close to the end of all of this,” he said wearily. “The worst is over. But for those poor people. . . . It is so sad.
“I know what they are going through. And they probably have no idea what is ahead.”
Although the Beaufait Avenue neighborhood is 20 years old, the 12000 through 12300 blocks, where the most fire damage took place, looks like part of a new housing development. Several houses are new. Others have gleaming new tile roofs. A few are still under construction, while landscaping is being completed on others.
But the rebirth of the neighborhood does not show the pain of the struggle to rebuild. The victims of the Porter Ranch fire said the road back to normalcy has been hard and is not yet completed. After one night of high wind and fire, they found themselves in a whirlwind of insurance agents and adjusters, building contractors, inspectors and the media.
“It is such a tough time right after being a victim of that kind of disaster,” said Eric Struthoff, whose family’s house and belongings were destroyed. He and his wife and two daughters finally moved back into their rebuilt house this month.
“You are thrown into an arena you are not familiar with,” Struthoff said. “There are so many decisions. You have to deal with insurance. You have to be careful what contractor to use. You have to find a rental house. These are decisions that are difficult enough to make under even normal circumstances.
“And, meantime, you have to carry on everyday activities like your business, your children’s schooling. It becomes a full-time job in itself.”
For some families the tortuous wait to return to their neighborhood lasted only six months. Others are still waiting.
Nearly all faced delays of one kind or another. Brian and Marlene Oliver went through four insurance adjusters. Sidharta spent seven months negotiating with his insurance company before he could even begin to plan the rebuilding of his house.
“It is very confusing and there are always delays--even in getting something like a front door,” Sidharta said. “You have to deal with it piece by piece. And you have to watch over everything if you want it done right.”
Ann Friedman says she is one of the lucky ones because her family moved into a rebuilt house just six months after the fire. Although there were no insurance or contractor snags, she still refers to the fire and the rebuilding process as a “nightmare followed by a nightmare.”
“Once the initial shock wears off there are larger problems,” she said. “We lost everything. We had to start completely over.”
During the recovery process, the residents drew closely together--bound by the shared experience of the fire and the belief that outsiders could not fully understand their loss.
“Most people said, ‘Aren’t you excited that you have the opportunity to build a new house and buy new things, new furniture?’ ” Struthoff recalled. “But the answer is no. You would rather have the old back.”
Friedman, her husband and two sons moved into a rebuilt house that was designed exactly the way they had wished the original had been. But surrounded by new furnishings and new appliances, they did not feel at home for several months. They were missing a lifetime of belongings--keepsakes that physically connected them to their pasts.
“As time goes on, it gets better,” Friedman said. “It finally feels like home to me now.”
As the neighborhood finally completes its rebirth, the neighbors have kept their close bonds. Those friendships are counted among the few positive results of the fire. There have been several block parties on Beaufait over the past 18 months, and the residents will gather again on the Fourth of July.
The relationships help repair emotional scars left by the fire, which for many have lasted far longer than the property damage.
Earlier this week, when fires raged in Glendale and Santa Barbara, the haunting memory of Dec. 9, 1988, came back to many. Neighbors gathered in the street to talk about the fire. Some called the Fire Department after seeing smoke, only to be told the fire danger was miles away.
“These latest fires were much more horrendous, but it brought back the memory,” Struthoff said.
“You don’t forget.”
Ann Friedman said she sat in her new house watching television reports on the fires and started crying. The next day she called the Red Cross in Glendale and gave her name and phone number.
“I told them that if any of those people want to talk to someone who went through this, I’m here,” Friedman said. “I just want to tell them, ‘You will get through this, even though it doesn’t seem like you ever will.’ ”
STORIES: A1, A26-27, B7