Gathered in a picturesque park below a blackened hillside Sunday, more than 300 residents vowed to defy nature and rebuild following the fierce Laguna Beach fire that tried its best to ravage this exclusive seaside community.
"Tough Times Never Last, Tough People Do!" read a sign at the entrance to the gated enclave where more than 65 of 500 luxury homes were gutted and others were damaged. The fast-moving fireball exploded into the canyon Wednesday, forcing many residents to flee with only their lives.
"We're going to come back stronger than before," said Richard Lusk, 33, a computer graphics artist who lost his home. "I know we'll make it and this community will be stronger for it."
While acknowledging that many people in the affluent community will eventually rebound financially, the Emerald Bay Community Assn. on Sunday announced an "Adopt-a-Bay-Family" program to offer help that money can't buy: neighborly support, friendship and assistance to navigate the tough times ahead.
"I'm talking about just being there for your neighbor," said Bruce McDonald, an association director who announced the plan to the gathering.
So much support greeted the plan that many fire victims found themselves "adopted" by more than the two families McDonald had hoped would assist each family victimized by the fire.
"I think the sign out front says it all," said Peggy Wise, one of three Emerald Bay residents who adopted Lusk, whose home had sat alongside hers. "It's really important at a time like this for all of us to stick together. I'm just doing what I know my neighbors would do for me."
Some fire victims might need a friendly neighbor to help with child care, a resident lawyer who can offer advice, or an Emerald Bay psychologist to provide counseling, McDonald said. While most displaced residents have relocated with friends or have new apartments, many need basics, like clothing, to get through the next few days. One neighbor dropped off several boxes of used clothing at the meeting that also featured food, soft drinks and cake.
Resident Marri Derby was planning to search out some clothes for adopted neighbors Patsy and Gene Gamble, friends who lost everything in the fire.
"I know what it's like not to have any of your own clothes," said Derby, who herself had to relocate temporarily when the fire damaged her roof. "I just feel for all of these people so much."
Gene Gamble, a financial adviser, said he was so overjoyed to find that his wife and their dog escaped from the fire that he has refused to lament what was lost.
"I just refuse to give in to depression about this," said Gamble, who joked about whether his adoptive family would set a curfew or give him an allowance. "Does this mean I have to call you Dad?" he joked during a hug with a neighbor.
"Some people may wonder 'Why does an Emerald Bay resident need help?' because of perceptions about the people who live here," McDonald said after the meeting. "But this isn't just about getting a house back. It's about rebuilding a community, piece by piece."
McDonald said he will make it his business to keep the plan on track. A Thanksgiving Day celebration for Emerald Bay fire victims is the first step in doing so, he said.
McDonald also told residents that everyone has an interest in making sure rebuilding is done properly. He urged victims to apply for federal assistance and begin the process back to normalcy, but also warned about outsiders who might prey on them.
"There are ambulance chasers in this world," McDonald said, advising victims to seek references before signing contracts for work, and also asking those in the building industry to help out where possible. "Don't rush into decisions. The bay is subject to exploitation."
McDonald also expressed concerns about possible mudslides and hillside erosion now that homes and growth are destroyed.
Residents offered special thanks for the local firefighters. McDonald told those at the meeting that he had heard grumblings that firefighters should have done more. But McDonald assured residents that the community's firefighters were the heroes of the day who prevented more extensive damage.
"These firefighters literally saved our bay," McDonald said, as the crowd applauded and cheered.
Resident Jany Glade, who planned to adopt a family Sunday, said a closer-knit community will rise from the ashes.
"I think a lot of people live here but don't know each other very well, but that will change now," Glade said. "There will be a good lesson in all of this for us. We need to help each other."