Forging New Beginnings : Neighborhoods: The emotional distance that once separated residents of a Laguna Beach street was burned away by October’s firestorm. Now, for the first time, there is a feeling of community and friendliness.


During 22 years of living in the peaceful hills above this city’s downtown, Christian Werner had never learned the name of a single neighbor on Buena Vista Way, a quiet, winding street lined with hedges and high walls that provided the privacy he cherished.

In fact, says Werner, a geography professor at UC Irvine, his rare, chance exchanges with neighbors seldom varied from the ritual: They would greet each other, concur yet again on the beauty of the day, then slip back inside their hillside havens.

But when the Oct. 27 firestorm destroyed the wooden fences and leafy curtains that divided these neighbors, social barriers tumbled as well. The emotional distance that many on Buena Vista had carefully preserved for years is now shattered, no less a casualty of the fire than the nine houses that burned along this narrow, one-block street.


“All of the relationships have changed,” said Loretta Edger, 53, who has owned a house at 661 Buena Vista for 18 years and visited frequently from her main residence in Illinois.

“We’re all much more open now, much more willing to talk and be helpful to each other,” she said. “There’s a feeling that we’re all in this together, a feeling for the first time of real community.”

Werner, 58, agrees, although at times he wistfully remembers the seclusion he enjoyed behind his jungle of exotic greenery at 657 Buena Vista, next door to Edger.

“It’s been a remarkable experience,” Werner said soon after the blaze, as he fielded phone calls from fellow fire victims he barely knew.

“These kinds of events tend to establish a commonality among neighbors. I have only seen or talked to these people very casually in the past, but they are reaching out to me now, and they are proving to be very nice, compassionate and open.”

Nearly four months after the fire raced down Buena Vista and other nearby roads--incinerating homes, upsetting routines and scarring lives--the neighborhood here is reviving as its residents’ relationships grow. Although foundations for homes will not be laid for several months, signs of the street’s regeneration abound.


The huge, blackened cork oak that stands before Don and Jo Williamsons’ burned-out lot at 665 Buena Vista has burst into verdant bloom. Bright green asparagus ferns have struggled up through the ashes and a scorched Indian hawthorne is covered with tiny pink blossoms.

Near the northern end of the street, an architect’s sign sprouts from the yard of what used to be Sheila Patterson and Shannon Nally’s home at 644 Buena Vista; down the way, a surveyor’s orange flags mark the boundaries of the Williamsons’ lot--both preludes to the homes to come.

In much the same way, friendships between neighbors on Buena Vista have also blossomed, ensuring that life here will never return to the way it was.

“It has changed so dramatically, it can’t be the same,” said Jackie Allen, who says she is looking forward to the more neighborly incarnation of her street. “All of us were pretty much into our own lives before, but it’ll be a different story now.”

Buena Vista Way had never been the sort of street where residents borrowed sugar from each other, sweated together over back-yard projects or entertained back and forth, several said. Most on the street are busy professionals whose limited time for socializing centered more on their offices or long-term friendships than on their neighborhood.

But within hours of the fire, the new bonds were forged, as family after family returned to the charred northern end of the street to discover their homes in ashes.


A few days later, flyers blanketed the block, at first from residents offering support to those whose homes had burned, later advertising one fire-related gathering after another: a joint thank you presentation for firefighters from the lucky ones whose homes still stood; a “we survived the fire” celebration for anyone around that first weekend; a three-street block party to honor a man credited with saving several dwellings.

Suddenly, residents who had waved casually to each other for years found themselves exchanging hugs, often with their names and new phone numbers. Since then, they have seen one another in visits to the devastated street and at the many meetings here aimed at helping fire victims find their way through the maze of insurance claim forms and rebuilding regulations.

Those who cannot make the meetings are often kept informed by their neighbors. Werner, the next-door neighbor Loretta Edger barely knew before the fire, now calls her frequently at her home in Illinois and sends her handouts from the meetings he attends, Edger said.

The genteel, almost formal, distance between many here once kept them from teasing each other, even gently, about the appearances of their homes or gardens. But those barriers, too, have fallen.

Take, for example, a eucalyptus tree that had stood in Werner’s jungle-like garden and blocked a corner of George Cary’s view.

One day after the fire, Cary and Werner stood together on the street, looking out toward the Pacific over their blackened lots, the charred skeletons of trees poking up through the rubble.


“Half seriously, half joking, I told him I really hoped that particular tree didn’t come back,” said Cary, who lived at 645 Buena Vista with his wife, Marlene Wright, and their infant daughter. “I would never have said that before; we didn’t even know him.”

As the friendships evolve, residents say they are sharing more than their mutual frustrations with the tedious rebuilding process. According to several, they are also volunteering specifics of their personal finances, including the extent of their insurance coverage and the values of their old homes.

Werner and Edger have compared notes on the widely divergent ways their two insurance companies are determining the values of their old homes. Werner’s has required that two architects re-create the plans, at a cost of about $3,000 per set, while Edger’s has assessed her home based on an appraisal of the lot, a survey of comparable properties and her description of the property.

Several others, including Sheila Patterson, her next-door neighbor, Tom Homan, and Jackie and Jim Allen are sharing information about the amounts their insurers are willing to pay architects to draw the plans for the new houses.

“We’re just trying to help each other get through all the bureaucratic insanity,” Patterson said.

The fire survivors said they have begun discussing ways to cooperate as they rebuild, efforts that extend far beyond the usual conversations between neighbors in Laguna Beach about promising not to obstruct each other’s views.

As they plan their new houses, many on the street are considering hiring a single geological firm to reduce the cost of studying their lots--hoping that a comprehensive, joint survey might enhance their knowledge of their land, including any risk associated with rebuilding on a slope that has slid at least once.


The city requires such studies before it will issue building permits and several Buena Vista owners believe that the current situation provides an opportunity to study the entire area for potential problems that might affect them all.

Several on the street, including Werner, also regularly attend meetings of the well-organized homeowners association in nearby Mystic Hills, and have returned to their neighbors with borrowed ideas for even greater cooperation.

Werner said he is interested in exploring whether the group should hire the same landscaper, jointly purchase building materials, or try to cooperate in scheduling the arrival of construction vehicles along the narrow street. But he expects that many of those ideas will not work.

Cary, a lawyer who has tried to organize the cooperative effort by arranging meetings and acting as an information clearinghouse for his neighbors, agreed. Cary said the only viable plan involves the geological survey.

“It just takes a huge amount of time and effort to get everyone together, to get the word out, even to make the phone calls,” Cary said. “We’re still trying to do it with the geological (study) but that may end up being the only thing we do together.”

The various households, subject to the schedules of their insurance adjusters, architects and others, find themselves at widely different stages of the rebuilding process.


Some residents have just begun to compile the comprehensive lists of belongings required by their insurance companies. Others have completed their lists and received settlement checks. A few are working with architects to plan the specifics of their new homes, while others have yet to choose an architect.

Each stage of the process holds the potential to widen the gaps.

One family has decided to move forward on its own with plans for rebuilding, convinced that any group effort on the required studies will take too long.

For 37 years, the Williamsons had lived in a soaring A-frame designed by Don Williamson, an architect and the former director of Laguna Beach’s Pageant of the Masters. Now 80, he is designing the couple’s new home and said he and his wife, Jo, 78, have decided to proceed in order to maximize the time they can spend in it.

“I could just see this going on forever,” he said, referring to the discussions over the geological study and a recent decision by the group to seek a second bid.

Jackie Allen, lamenting the loss of her home of 18 years at 631 Buena Vista, has experienced a similar frustration.

“This just takes so long, every step of the way,” she said. “My main thing is just to get back into that house and try to get back to normal.”


And when she does, she said, she will throw a party for her neighbors, a celebration of survival, renewal and newfound friends.

“When all is said and done, it will be a nicer neighborhood,” she said. “We will all be better friends because of what we’ve been through.”