Victims of Green Meadow Fire Begin Tough Job of Rebuilding

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One month after fire destroyed his hilltop home near Thousand Oaks, Harman Rasnow struggles with the slow and arduous task of rebuilding his life.

"Every morning it takes me five minutes just to figure out where to start," said the 72-year-old retired civil engineer. "My head is buzzing from all the things that I have to do just to get back to where I was, never mind moving ahead."

Rasnow and his family were the first victims of the wildfires that swept through Southern California last month. Their home of 23 years was destroyed in the 44,000-acre Green Meadow brush fire near Thousand Oaks.

After being forced to evacuate with "nothing but the clothes on our backs," Rasnow and his wife, Eleanor, stood at the bottom of the canyon known as Upper Ventu Park and watched through binoculars as flames consumed their home.

"The house, which I designed and built myself, was a crushing blow to lose, but it can be replaced," Rasnow said. "But we could spend the rest of our lives mourning the loss" of personal treasures, such as family photos, birth certificates, jewelry, paintings and various heirlooms.

For now, Rasnow said, he must put aside his emotions and turn his attention to rebuilding. He said he and his son Brian are already on their fourth set of drawings for a new home. Brian, 32, and Tina Rasnow, 35, also have homes on their father's 200-acre ranch, but they were spared by the fire.

Harman Rasnow said it may be another month or two before he is ready to go to an architect with final plans for a new home. In the meantime, he will be busy clearing his property, making an inventory of what was lost, replacing important legal documents and negotiating a settlement with his insurance company.

"There's so much I have to do it's unbelievable," said Rasnow as he ran off a list of his own questions regarding his rebuilding efforts.

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Will the insurance company fully reimburse him for planning and permit fees as well as building costs? Will he be required to replace his 23-year-old septic tank system with a new and more costly one in order to comply with current county regulations? Will he have to pay more than $7,000 in developer fees to the Conejo Valley Unified School District? Will he be required to put in a new in-house sprinkler system?

Rasnow's insurance agent could not be reached for comment, but county officials said that if Rasnow's septic tank system is in working order and his new house is the same size as the old one, he will not have to replace it. Also, they said he would be required to put in a sprinkler system only if his new house is more than 5,000 square feet or more than five miles from the nearest fire station.

School fees would also be waived if Rasnow's new house is the same square footage as before, said Sarah Hart, business manager of the Conejo Valley Unified School District.

"Only if he built a larger house would he be charged, and then only for the additional square footage," she said.

Nonetheless, Rasnow said he expects that he will have to pick up some planning and building costs not covered by insurance. He said he has already purchased $200 worth of property maps from the county to help in his design plans.

As difficult as it may be, Rasnow and his wife said they will make it through the rebuilding process.

What they struggle with, they said, is their belief that the Ventura County Fire Department could have saved their home.

"I depended on the Fire Department, and I feel completely let down by them," said Eleanor Rasnow, 65. "It's not the firefighters themselves. But those in command for not sending anybody up here. This is what hurts because it didn't have to happen."

Her husband said he called the Fire Department shortly after the fire began at 1:30 p.m., but was told that the fire was under control.

"I called the dispatcher and asked her what was happening," Harman Rasnow said. "I said, 'I see smoke. Is it something serious? Should I make plans to evacuate?' She said, 'No, everything's under control. You have nothing to worry about.' "

Rasnow called back a few minutes later to tell the dispatcher that the fire was quickly moving up the canyon toward his house. But he said he was told that there was no answer at Station 35 in Newbury Park, that the firefighters were all out on the fire line.

At 3 p.m., a sheriff's deputy arrived to order Rasnow and his family to evacuate.

"We just had time to drive away with the clothes on our backs," Rasnow said. "Nothing else."

He said he is convinced that if firefighters had taken a stand at his house, they may have been able to keep the fire from spreading over the ridgeline into Hidden Valley.

"In 1978, there was a similar fire, and the Fire Department came up here, set up a command post and saved my house," he said. "They also stopped the fire from going farther."

Ventura County Fire Chief George Lund said firefighters had their hands full at the time and were unable to dispatch a crew to Rasnow's ranch. He said the firefighters focused their efforts on the residential neighborhood around Green Meadow Avenue, where encroaching flames had threatened many homes in the afternoon.

"We went where the highest hazards and most homes were," he said.

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Lund said even if firefighters had been able to get up to Rasnow's property, there is no guarantee that they would have been able to make a safe stand against the fire or to prevent it from spreading. He noted that there were 100-foot-high flames, and when Rasnow's house finally caught fire it exploded.

"It's possible we could have lost some firefighters up there," he said.

But Rasnow said that if firefighters immediately responded after his first call, they would have had plenty of time to prepare because the fire did not reach his house for two more hours.

He said officials should have immediately recognized that his hilltop ranch would have provided them the best possible place from which to try and keep the fire from spreading over the hill. Rasnow said he had three bulldozers, two tractors and 55,000 gallons of stored water that could have helped battle the blaze.

Rasnow said the Fire Department should have made his ranch a top priority because it is home to a major communications network that includes 30 radio, television and cellular telephone antennas. Of these, six antennas were destroyed in the fire and are now being rebuilt.

"I'm in no way intending to criticize the firefighters who risked their lives," Rasnow said. "They have great courage and I have the utmost respect for them. But people in responsible positions should be made aware of the consequences of their decisions."

Lund said an analysis has been done to evaluate how well the department's communication and organizational methods worked during the fire. He said he has not seen results of the analysis, which was completed last week.

"But I'm sure it doesn't focus on what we did right or wrong regarding Rasnow's property," he said. "That was just a very small part of it."

Lund said fire officials were aware of Rasnow's water tanks and his earth-moving equipment on the ranch, but again he said firefighters were dispatched to areas where officials believed they could do the most good.

"We couldn't be everywhere at once," he said.

Since the fire, Rasnow and his wife have been living in a condominium they own in Ventura. Rasnow said he is helping his daughter finish construction of a new home she is building on his ranch. Once this is completed, he said, he and his wife will move in with her so they can more closely supervise the rebuilding of their own home.

Rasnow said he plans to rebuild as quickly as possible because he fears that a longstanding dispute with the city about building restrictions may cause problems down the road. Last year, the Rasnow property came under new regulations--approved by the county at the request of the city--that limit grading on steep hillsides.

Rasnow responded by filing a $10-million lawsuit against the city and the county, alleging that the agency's strict development policies made it impossible to build new houses on the land. The case is still being litigated.

"My feeling is that the city is not going to give up on this," Rasnow said. "They want to preserve their pristine view."

Thousand Oaks Mayor Elois Zeanah said Rasnow had nothing to worry about. She said the city has no plans to block his attempts to rebuild. In fact, she said she would be willing to talk to county officials if there is a problem.

"Whatever they tell us, I'm taking with a grain of salt," Rasnow said. "Right now there's a lot of compassion. But that's going to stop. People will forget."

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Although 38 residences were lost in the Thousand Oaks fire, only one property owner so far has requested a permit to rebuild part of a damaged guest house in Carlisle Canyon, county officials said.

"A lot of people are still negotiating with their insurance companies, or getting drawings made up," said William Windroth, director of Ventura County's Building and Safety Department. "I think it's going to be about three months before we really see people start coming in for permits."

Windroth said a building permit--which allows for electrical, plumbing and mechanical installations--can cost between $200 and $2,000. A permit is needed for each structure built and, if any grading is needed for development, it could cost a property owner an additional $700 for a county plan check.

Windroth said once plans are submitted it would take about two weeks before permits are issued.

While the county has not offered to waive or discount permit fees, Windroth said his office has taken steps to make it easier for property owners to get a temporary mobile home permit so they can live on their land as they rebuild.

"I'm doing everything I can within the law to give them a break," he said. "I've had a house of mine burn down. I know what a hardship it is. I know what it's like to see your personal belongings ground up in ashes. I've been there."

Meanwhile, several insurers said they had no plans to raise premiums for people who live in fire-prone areas. But at least one company, State Farm Insurance, has filed a request with the state to raise its rates across the board for all of its customers.

"We filed the request on Sept. 24," said Tom Cordova, a State Farm spokesman. "So it had nothing to do with the fires."

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