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Difficult Task of Surviving the Fire’s Aftermath Begins

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Television had returned to regular programming, many roads had reopened and the black smoke that covered much of the West San Fernando Valley had blown out to sea.

But for scores of residents, surviving the Calabasas/Malibu fire has just begun Thursday.

“The problem is, what happens next year when the Santa Anas return and the next crazy person decides to set a fire?” asked Jacob Eleasari, owner of a 2,500-foot greenhouse on Old Topanga Canyon Road that burned to the ground.

The fire destroyed his business, Kowalke Family Sprouts, leaving six people unemployed.

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“We lost our income,” he said.

The fire, which was 70% contained Thursday evening, had destroyed 18,650 acres and caused 11 injuries, 10 to firefighters. One resident died.

Land in the path of the fire resembled a lunar landscape; 350 structures had been damaged or destroyed.

Although their business was gone, Eleasari and his wife were thankful their home was spared.

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“We didn’t experience tremendous discomfort except for the ache in our hearts,” said his wife, Nurit Berger.

There were signs Thursday that at least the infrastructure of their pastoral neighborhood--far less densely populated than the housing tracts in Calabasas just to the north--was coming back to life. Numerous crews from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, Pacific Bell and Southern California Edison lined the two-lane roads.

“People are without lights, we’ve got to do something about it,” said Bob Bradford, foreman of a Southern California Edison crew erecting a utility pole to replace one destroyed by the fire.

Some residents already had power, but others were relying on the crews.

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“It looks like we’ll have a lot of this area wired again by tonight,” Bradford said with pride.

The speed in which they were accomplishing their task was due, in part, to practical considerations.

“A line used to come off of this pole to a house,” Bradford said, “but the house isn’t there anymore.

“We’ll leave that part of the hookup alone until later and move on.”

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Fire crews continued to douse small hot spots as they arose.

But with police limiting access to the work crews and local residents, the area was quiet.

Most residences that were destroyed were unattended. Residents whose homes were saved seemed respectful of the awesome impact on their neighborhood. No music could be heard from the houses still standing, no children played in the yards.

The only noticeable indications of relief were hand-painted signs. “Bless you all and thank you” read one on a partly burned wooden fence.

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Residents whose homes were damaged but still inhabitable kept a vigil, waiting for help.

“I’m just waiting for my insurance adjuster to come by,” said a woman named Cynthia who lost at least a third of her one-story house near Mulholland Highway and Stunt Road to fire and water damage.

She did not want to give her full name out of fear that she would be besieged by solicitations from bogus renovation companies.

The area had not yet fallen victim to the con artists who had already visited other neighborhoods recently hit by fires. Cynthia said she thinks this is only because of the police limiting access.

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In preparation for the day when roads are completely reopened, she had posted “Private Property--Keep Out” signs.

“If any of those people (con artists) come close, I will tell them to go to hell,” she said.

Some residents, though glad the police were monitoring their streets, had heard stories of people being cut off from their homes.

“Once you leave, they don’t let you back in,” said Sarah Baisley, publicity director for an animation company. “So, I’m doing everything by FAX.”

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Other survivors seemed overwhelmed by the very fact that they had survived.

“I’m still in shock, I can’t do anything today,” said Simone Selman, who lives just east of where officials believe the fire began.

“I thought I was going to lose my house,” Selman said, “and it came eight feet away.”

One of the saddest stories came from Doug Snyder and Virginia Macias, who thought until Thursday afternoon that their three-bedroom home had survived.

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While the fire raged, they called the house many times and always got the answering machine.

“The answering machine was still working, so we thought everything was going to be all right,” Macias said.

But on Thursday when they finally returned, they saw that much of the home they had purchased only four months ago had been destroyed.

In the rubble was the answering machine, still operable.

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A few hours later, Snyder and Macias sat eating a free lunch at the Inn of the Seventh Ray, a landmark restaurant on Old Topanga Canyon Road that was providing meals to local residents and firefighters.

“She wants to rebuild, but I don’t know,” said Snyder, a financial planner, who said he lost his job in March. Only two weeks ago, his father died.

“All those fires and floods,” he said, his voice trailing off.

But Macias, an artist, could envision renewal, even amid the devastation.

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“It is going to be beautiful in the spring,” she said. “Now that all the brush has burned, you can see the skin of the hills.”

There were signs the renewal had already begun.

Back up Mulholland Highway, Cynthia quietly surveyed her ash-covered front yard. “The birds are coming back,” she said quietly, pointing to a couple of small birds that had flown in.

“My little hummingbird came back today,” she said. “I wasn’t sure that would ever happen.”

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