The Road Back : Davasted by the worst fire in 30 years, Southern Californians begin to rebuild their lives.

The gusting winds have died, the temperatures have dropped, the walls of flames racing down the hillsides have been extinguished and the smoke billowing from the mountains has dissipated.

While firefighters from around the state are beginning to return home and television camera crews are packing up, the struggle for those whose residences were destroyed is just beginning. The fire started so suddenly and spread through the bone-dry brush so quickly that residents had no time to pack.

Most escaped from the fire with just the clothes they were wearing. In the aftermath, they did not have the luxury of even a few quiet days to mourn their losses. They were forced, instead, to face the exigencies of the daily routine. Their days were spent buying toothbrushes and toothpaste, underwear, linen and pillows. They called utility companies to cancel service; they called friends and relatives, trying to arrange beds for the night.

When tragedy strikes Santa Barbara, some outsiders are not particularly sympathetic. The community is viewed as the glamorous city portrayed in the soap opera "Santa Barbara," an elitist beach town with an income level comparable to Malibu or La Jolla. While some million-dollar homes were lost in the fire, modest tract homes also were destroyed, along with small businesses, apartment buildings and mobile homes.

During the last few days, these residents, rich and not rich, have been struggling to regain some sense of order in their lives. Here are the stories of three families:

FRANK AND ALICE HERNANDEZ

"No insurance"

Frank Hernandez and his family crowded into a small cubicle at Red Cross headquarters as a caseworker, attempting to assess how much they lost in last week's devastating fire, began checking items off a printed form.

"Food?" the caseworker asked.

"Nothing left," Frank said.

"Clothing?"

"Just what we're wearing."

"Furnishings?"

"All gone."

"Cars?"

"Burned."

"House?"

"Destroyed."

"Insurance?"

He swallowed hard and dropped his chin to his chest. He covered his eyes with his palms.

"No insurance," he said softly.

Hundreds of people lost their homes in the Santa Barbara fire. Many of them had insurance, and they've spent the last few days meeting with contractors, talking to insurance agents, and preparing to rebuild. They had endured a traumatic week and now, at least, they could plan for the future.

Frank, 66, a retired house painter and his wife, Alice, 65, live on a fixed income--mainly Social Security. They have limited savings and can't afford to rebuild. This week, they plan to meet with officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and will ask for a low-interest loan. But they don't know if they can afford loan payments.

When Frank and Alice bought the house 27 years ago, they had to take out an insurance policy as a condition of the loan. But when they paid the house off in 1984, they didn't renew the policy. Frank, who has diabetes, and Alice, a retired preschool aide, are both disabled. They have a combined income of $857 a month and spend it all on food and medicine. They simply couldn't afford the monthly insurance payments, Frank said.

"My wife and I live on a tight budget," Frank said. "If we paid for the insurance, we wouldn't be able to afford something else."

He turned his head away as his eyes filled with tears. He took a deep breath. "What the hell are you going to do?"

The Hernandezes lived on Sherwood Drive, a narrow street on a bluff just outside the Santa Barbara city limits. It is far from the mansions of Montecito and the ranches of celebrities such as Jane Fonda and Michael Jackson. Sherwood Drive overlooks a trailer park and a freeway and was lined by modest, 1950s tract homes.

Now, not a single house stands on Sherwood Drive; the entire street was leveled by the fire and all that remains are a few charred fireplaces and crumbling foundations.

When a wall of flames came roaring down a nearby hillside Wednesday night, Frank and Alice were watching the progression of the fire from their patio. They grabbed a drawer full of personal papers and documents, stuffed them in the trunk of their car and drove off. Their daughter, Carla Trujillo, and her two children, who live in the small cottage behind the main house, followed in their van.

They all spent the night at a relative's house and held out hope that their homes would somehow be spared. The next morning they saw a picture of Sherwood Drive in a newspaper: The whole street had been razed.

Since then, the Hernandezes have been in such a state of shock that they have been unable to shop for toothbrushes, much less make plans for the future.

Frank and Alice hadn't slept for two nights when they arrived at the Red Cross headquarters in Santa Barbara on Friday morning. Nobody in the family had salvaged even a change of clothing. Frank was wearing a polo shirt he had borrowed from his son-in-law; Alice borrowed her sister-in-law's T-shirt and tennis shoes.

While Frank waited to see a Red Cross counselor, he talked about how much the house meant to him, how he had raised six children there, how he liked the way the house was filled with light in the morning, and how he and his sons built the patio, put in new floors and retiled the bathrooms.

"I had a grandfather clock there. It was a beautiful clock. I gave it to my wife for our 50th wedding anniversary. You know," he said, shaking his head, "I just made the last payment on it."

As Frank, Alice and their daughter waited on plastic chairs in the Red Cross lobby, they were surrounded by a flurry of activity. In one corner of the building, other newly homeless families wandered about, their dogs and children filling the room with noise. People occasionally broke down in tears and Red Cross workers hugged them.

In another section of the building, a Red Cross official, surrounded by dozens of people who had just volunteered to answer the referral lines, held an impromptu training session. Next to them, other workers made sandwiches, poured coffee and carried off crates of peaches and oranges.

The Hernandez family met briefly Friday morning with a Red Cross counselor, who set up another appointment for them later in the morning with a caseworker. Carla decided to return to her cottage to see if anything could be salvaged. Frank and Alice decided to go to the post office to check on their mail.

"I'm not ready to see it yet," Frank said. "I'll go back . . . when I settle down a little. I'll shed a few tears and that'll be the end of it."

The following day Frank was ready and he returned to the ruins for one last look.

On Friday, when Carla arrived at the house, she was confronted with a charred lot. Only a few random items survived: her children's tricycles, bent and twisted from the heat; the orange tree, with only blackened withered fruit hanging from the branches; a mangled metal chair and the metal tip of a hammer.

There was an eerie quiet on the street. The only sounds were the crunching of residents walking over burnt wreckage, sifting for anything they could salvage, and the squawking of someone's pet cockatoo that had escaped during the fire and taken refuge in a pepper tree.

"This was my front door," said Carla, framing the imaginary door with her hands.

Carla, her husband and two children paid her parents $250 a month rent to live in the cottage out back. "We'll have to pay three times as much to get another place, and we can't afford that," she said. "My brother-in-law has one room for the four of us, so we've got a place temporarily. But after that . . . I just don't know."

After sifting through the wreckage for about half an hour, Carla discovered a tiny silver and turquoise ring that her 7-year-old daughter had left in a drawer. She placed the charred ring on her little finger and headed back to the Red Cross.

Carla and her parents met with a caseworker, who gave them vouchers to buy clothing, shoes, linens and toilet articles. But none of them had the energy to go shopping.

Instead, they returned to a relative's house, and, for the first time since Tuesday night, went to sleep.

JIM AND JERI GRAY

"I have a hard time accepting help"

Jim and Jeri Gray were not made for the role of victims. To be honest, it makes them uneasy. So ever since their half-million-dollar house and their possessions burned into oblivion Wednesday, they've been defying their designated role and getting on with life.

It was everyone else, it sometimes seemed, who needed reassurance last week. There was the real estate broker weeping over the ruined house. There were children, aging parents and colleagues at work. The Grays often ended up tending to the bystanders in a graceful, humorous turning of the tables.

"I have a hard time accepting help," Jeri confessed Friday, leaving a bank where a solicitous branch manager had materialized, offering hot chocolate, coffee and long-distance calls.

"We always help other people. It makes me uncomfortable: I don't want to put other people out."

Jim is a 50-year-old County Bank vice president with the silver mustache and the soft-spoken composure of some sort of officer of the British Empire. Jeri, 34, works for a title insurance company. They have been married five years and have a 2-year-old son with a tangle of names, reduced for everyday purposes to JW.

On Wednesday evening, the 2,200-square-foot ranch house they had bought a year ago in the Rancho San Antonio development burned to smithereens. The Grays got out with some of his camera equipment, some baby clothes, the springer spaniel and the German shepherd. Jeri's black cat, Bub, is feared to have perished under the bed.

Since then, the Grays have gone about methodically reconstructing a life for JW and themselves--talking to insurers, buying telephones, replacing toys and lining up child care. The interminable inventory of logistics allows only an occasional glimpse into the Grays' inevitable pain.

Jim still plays back those few minutes Wednesday night when the fire galloped down the canyon: If he had spent less time on the roof sweeping away pine needles, could he have saved the cat?

Jeri, who has the kind of memory that spits up Jim's Social Security card number on command, is finding she has to write things down. The fire has confused the tenses: Jeri talks about neighbors in the past tense but says she collects porcelain boxes, even though every single one was lost in the fire.

"I feel like my brain's short-circuiting," she mused. "It's not on target."

The Grays spent the first night in the tiny apartment of Jim's 24-year-old daughter, Lisa, from an earlier marriage. They had taken the dogs to a kennel, for $20 a day. They got about two hours of sleep, dropped off JW with a familiar baby-sitter, and returned for the first time to see if anything was left.

"Numb," is how Jim describes the feeling. It's hard to imagine how the destruction might have been more complete. The fire had been so intense that it melted the window locks into silver globs, like chocolate kisses wrapped in foil. All that remained of a brass lamp was the steel frame of the shade.

There was a ticking wristwatch intact in the floor safe, along with some jewelry. The credit cards in the safe had melted into a grilled plastic sandwich. There were the freakish tidbits, including a charred check from a local golf pro that the cataclysm had lifted out of some distant neighbor's wreckage and deposited in the Grays' pot of melted begonias.

The next stop was Robinson's, for underwear. They then picked up JW, careful to arrive at the usual time. The tiny, blond-haired, blue-eyed child had awakened screaming from his nap, the baby-sitter told them sadly, tangled in a 2-year-old's indescribable nightmare.

That night they slept in a hotel on the beach--water in view. By 8:30 a.m. Friday, with JW at the sitter, they were back at the site. Jim wandered through with a video camera--primarily to preserve a visual record for dealing with the insurance company--until it needed recharging. A few hundred feet away, a neighbor's house stood unscathed.

Shortly before 10 a.m., the Grays stopped at their insurance broker's office and picked up a $5,000 emergency funds check. One of the office workers buzzed solicitously about the Grays, offering what were already becoming platitudes: At least you're all right; everything else can be replaced; it happened so quickly!

"This is the time when the agent really wants the client to know he cares," the woman assured the Grays. Her tone was that of a medical office receptionist after a bad diagnosis.

From there, the couple headed to the bank for replacement checks and to put a new address on their accounts. They would be moving into a condominium in Goleta that they had bought for Lisa while she was in college. They had been trying to sell it this summer and the new tenants, who were moving in, quickly offered to find another place.

The Grays intend to rebuild where their old home stood. They haven't decided whether to go with a ranch style again or try something new. There will be the homeowner's association and the architectural review board to deal with. The Grays hope to be back home within two years.

"I knew you wanted to remodel, but you didn't have to take the whole town with you," a colleague of Jeri's joked with Jim when they stopped in at Jeri's office to pick up her paycheck and reassure friends.

"Yeah," Jim shrugged. "It got a little out of hand."

Later, there were phone calls to utility companies. "Hi. My name is Jeri Gray. We had service at 1019 Camino del Retiro. That was lost in the fire," she explained over and over on the phone in Lisa's apartment.

"Hi. Our home was lost in the fire. We want to make sure service was cut off."

Would the cable company charge for the melted boxes? the Grays wondered. Would the bottled water company want its bottles back? Do you make your mortgage payment on July 1, as though you still had a home? Do you pay your next insurance premium?

Yes on the last two, the Grays were to discover. As Jeri took to saying: Life goes on. Jim had to spend three hours in his office Friday afternoon finishing off some budget projections that only he could do. Outside the art museum on State Street, dozens of elderly tourists in brightly colored cardigans descended from a tour bus, eager to admire Santa Barbara.

"It just seems funny," Jeri chuckled. "It doesn't affect other people."

The local radio stations had returned by Friday afternoon to the usual banalities--ads for a cure for "male itch" and a live broadcast from Disneyland. There was still smoke in the hills to the northwest, but down in the city, even the odor of stale barbecue was gone.

"Are you victims of the . . . ?" asked a salesman in the phone store, his voice tapering off without finishing the question. In the cable television company office, Jeri asked if things had been crazy.

"Nope," the woman at the computer answered. "You're only my third fire victim today."

At Sav-On, Jeri hunted for an exact replica of the Cookie Monster toy that melted, a Mickey Mouse figure and JW's soccer ball.

"Birthday party coming up?" chirped the cashier.

"Something like that," Jeri said.

Stopping by Jim's office in late afternoon, there he was, ensconced behind his desk, surrounded by a computer, files and family photographs in shiny frames. To an outsider, he looked different; he seemed bolstered by his possessions, unlike the man trudging through the soot with all he owned in the trunk of his Nissan Maxima.

"Eloise called," he reported to Jeri, referring to a friend who also lost her home in the fire.

"How is she?" Jeri asked.

"Well, she said, 'When you're wearing your mother's bra and underwear, things aren't too good.' "

Back at the ruined house, the sun was slanting through the charred pine trees when the insurance adjuster bounded across the remains of the front doorway shortly after 5 p.m.

"Is this the Gray residence?" he asked the nonplussed couple. It was a hard question to answer.

For about an hour, the adjuster explained what the Grays would have to do: find plans of the house, inventory everything and produce photographs, if possible. He moved quickly through the rubble, speaking quietly into a tape recorder, taking photographs and jotting down occasional notes.

Then he left.

"I don't feel we got any real clear answers as to what's happening," said Jeri, wondering if she would have to prove the existence of several drawers full of hundred-dollar sweaters.

"My impression was you're going to have to work to show what you had."

Backing out of the driveway in their pickup truck, the Grays noticed a note stuck in the handle of the blackened mailbox. It was a business card from a general contractor they had never heard of. It was stapled to a typewritten, photocopied note on a small piece of paper.

"We extend our sympathy for the tragedy that has befallen you and your family," it said.

"There are no words to describe the feeling of loss you must endure. Our hearts go out to you. We can't change events but we can help you rebuild your dreams."

There was a space between the "Sincerely" and the contractor's name. But no one had bothered to sign it.

"Jeez," Jeri sighed. "Don't they realize how that comes off?"

STEVE KURSTIN AND MARINA ALZUGARAY "For renters like us, we're in the wind."

The couple sat next to Old San Marcos Road in the late morning sun and gazed at the dead gray mountainside across the canyon.

Steve Kurstin and his wife, Marina Alzugaray, wanted to go back up there to their home, even though they knew it no longer existed. And even though they knew that for them it may never exist again.

Steve, 49, and Marina, 41, had been renting a little piece of heaven secluded in the mountains above Santa Barbara before the gates of hell opened Wednesday evening and poured fire down the canyon walls.

The couple were friends of the landlady, who lived nearby and had felt secure about the rental arrangement.

Marina recalled the landlady saying: "You can live here as long as you like unless one of my kids needs the house or the house burns down."

"And we laughed," Marina said.

The arrangement seemed ideal. The house was located on 30 acres, but was still within a couple of miles of Santa Barbara, where Steve has a jewelry workshop and where Marina, a certified nurse-midwife, has her patients.

It was a modest, rustic house with a big fireplace and a brick and stone chimney. Steve and Marina paid what is considered a very reasonable rent of $850 a month. The couple kept chickens, they fed a fox who visited in the mornings, and at night they watched the stars, thick above the mountaintops, while they listened to the yammer of coyotes.

Like a lot of people who choose to live in these mountains, Steve and Marina are free spirits. It is important to them to be able to do unconventional things like erect a tepee in front of the house without upsetting the neighbors. They could do that where they lived and they did.

On the evening of the fire, Marina was home alone. Steve was in town at his workshop and the couple's 18-year-old son, Sharin, was away on a vacation. Marina was sitting in the tepee working on a book on midwifery when her kitten tensed up and acted strangely.

Marina looked out of the tepee and saw a huge smoke cloud billowing across the canyon. Suddenly, a neighbor was yelling for her to get out.

"I went into the house and looked around and said, 'What do I grab?' " she recalled.

She looked at the VCRs, the computers, the antiques and the clothes. She was still clutching the first few chapters of the book she had been working on and, in the end, that's all she took when she jumped into her car as a law enforcement officer ordered her to leave.

"I was screaming and crying and beating the steering wheel," she said, recalling her frustration and fear.

That night, Steve and Marina stayed in an apartment offered to them by strangers. It was but one of innumerable attempts by Santa Barbarans to help victims of the fire.

"That's the good part of a tragedy," Steve said. "It brings people together."

Through that first long night, the couple refused to believe the worst.

"We kept hoping that the fire had missed our house," Steve said. "There's always that holdout hope."

The next day, police barred residents from the area because of potential fire danger, but Steve and Marina managed to slip past the barricades to get a look at the house.

The brick and stone chimney stood at one end of the home. A blackened tree stretching its dead limbs to the heavens stood at the other end. In-between was rubble.

Everything was gone. The computers, the VCRs, all the clothes and furniture, all the jewelry, the antiques from Steve's aunt, the photo albums of Marina's family in Cuba, all her midwifery equipment and her patients' records. Nothing endured. "We had a cast-iron stove that heated the house," Steve said. "It's gone. It's melted."

Outside they found that the chicken coop was a horror. All the birds had died while clawing at the wire.

They looked at the ruins of their home and odd thoughts flashed through their minds: What about our cleaning deposit?

Nearby, the home of their landlady had also been destroyed.

"After what she's been through," Steve said, "I don't know if I can ask her for our deposit back. I'm embarrassed."

As terrible as her loss has been, the couple envy their landlady, who has the opportunity to rebuild.

"We should have bought a long time ago," Steve said, trying to deal with the realization that the couple has little chance of finding another place to rent in these devastated mountains.

"For renters like us," he said, "we're in the wind. We're just in the wind."

Steve and Marina have renters' insurance, but it will not begin to cover their losses--even those things that are replaceable. The policy limits the payment on jewelry, for example, to $1,000. One of Marina's rings from Cuba was worth far more than that.

Nevertheless, the policy was a bit of comfort and the insurance man was kind and helpful. He gave them a check for $1,000 and a voucher to buy anything they needed at Sears.

The Red Cross fed them and gave them a $200 voucher to shop at J.C. Penney.

But their needs seemed so overwhelming that they were reluctant to shop.

"I didn't want to rush to the store and buy things in desperation," said Marina. "I want to make a list and decide what I need."

Both had been wearing only shorts and T-shirts when the fire destroyed their home. Steve borrowed some clothes and Marina picked up some jeans at a thrift store just to get by. Even there, they wouldn't let her pay.

"I started to cry," Marina said, "because people are being so generous."

They spent the second night at the Franciscan Inn, near the harbor, and the proprietor told Steve to put his credit card away and not worry about the bill.

On Friday, the couple still felt drawn to their devastated home, but were unable to get past the barricades, so they sat by the side of the road and stared at the ashen mountainside.

Like other victims of the fire, Steve and Marina seem still to be in shock, disoriented by the tragedy and uncertain what to do next.

"That's why we're sitting here," Steve said. "Where are we going to go?"

"We're homeless, but we're not," he added. "We have the insurance money and everything. We don't feel destitute. . . . I don't see anything but going ahead. We're going to have to find a new place to live. What can you do? You can't quit."

Marina has taken an ad out in the local paper informing her patients that her midwifery practice was destroyed by the fire. She is hoping to obtain some new equipment through a relief agency to get started again.

Friends have set up a fund to help the couple through the crisis.

In the meantime, they continue to grieve for their lost home.

"I would love to go up to my house today," Steve said, "and just sift (through the ashes)."

"We're still sort of trying to go home," said Marina. "For my own emotional well-being I guess I need to see it a few times.

"Last night in my mind I kept thinking I could go back," she said. "I need to look at that dust and know I can't go back."

This article was reported and written by Times staff writers Miles Corwin, John Hurst and Janny Scott.

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