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A rise from the ashes -- perhaps

Times Staff Writers

Four years after a raging wildfire all but reduced this small Lake Arrowhead community to ash, only 30 of 336 homes destroyed have been rebuilt, leaving residents to fear that the once-affordable mountain hamlet may never recover.

Instead of the settlement being an out-of-the-way pocket of cottages popular with vacationers and resort workers, some worry that the new Cedar Glen, high in the San Bernardino Mountains, may ultimately be transformed into yet another getaway for the affluent as former residents are unable to shoulder soaring reconstruction costs.

“Cedar Glen will never be what it was,” said David Stuart of Rebuilding Mountain Hearts and Lives, a group dedicated to assisting reconstruction efforts.

Other neighborhoods lost in the string of Southern California wildfires in the fall of 2003 -- which were the worst in California history, scorching more than 738,000 acres and killing 25 people -- have largely recuperated. Nearly all of the 300 homes lost in the San Diego communities of Scripps Ranch and Tierrasanta have been rebuilt, and more than two-thirds of the 330 homes destroyed in the San Bernardino neighborhood of Del Rosa are in the reconstruction process.

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None of these areas, however, faced the unique problems confronting Cedar Glen, established 80 years ago as a camping ground for vacationing Angelenos. The 25-by-100-foot lots, known as tent lots, are not allowed under today’s building codes.

Here, residents seeking to rebuild also face narrow, decrepit roads; a bankrupt municipal water company; a substandard sewer system and modern building codes. Some insurance companies refuse to issue policies until roads and sewers are built. Many residents were underinsured and county grant programs designed to help have been slow to arrive.

“On a scale of one to 10, on the frustration level, it’s been a 17,” said Kevin Ryan, a Cedar Glen resident who lost his home but still hopes to rebuild. “It took three years to get things in place for them to decide what they would do over the next five years. Obviously, it’s not on the fast track.”

Ron Despars also lost his Cedar Glen house, but the 76-year-old was determined to rebuild.

Despars, a retired paper salesman, slept in the back of his van for six months before moving to the bare wooden floors of his slowly rising new house. He is among the lucky few to rebuild.

“It wasn’t easy,” Despars said, sitting on a stump outside his house smoking a cigarette. “I had to deal with building and safety about building too close to property lines and meeting new codes.”

Despars made his new house the same size as the last. A scattering of his neighbors’ houses are in various stages of repair. But for the most part, the destruction left behind by the arson-caused Old fire that raced up the mountain from San Bernardino remains untouched.

Scorched foundations and charred chimneys jut out of hillsides like tombstones. Towering forests of oak and pine have been replaced by blackened stumps. Some residents cut their losses and sold their lots to neighbors. Many who managed to come back, like Despars, had building experience, Stuart said.

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Amid the ruins are signs of hope. There are new structures surrounded by scaffolding and piles of wood and bricks. The noise of saws and hammers is welcomed by weary residents.

Some are using the opportunity to remodel their homes in grander fashion.

Frank and Hayley Orecchio’s new garage is as large as their old house. Frank Orecchio, an iron contractor, constructed a three-bedroom wood-planked house next to it after buying the adjoining lot. The couple live there year-round.

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“It was almost a blessing in disguise,” said Hayley Orecchio, 29. “Everybody helped us out and instead of having an old, small, cold cabin, we have our dream house. I hope everybody who wants to come back is able to because it is a beautiful place to live.”

Wildfires in other areas also have spurred rebirth -- and transformation.

After a 1993 Laguna Beach blaze destroyed more than 300 houses, many residents sold their lots to the wealthy, who replaced ranch-style homes with mini mansions. The new neighborhoods attracted a more affluent crowd who helped reshape the formerly artsy, bohemian town into today’s glitzy seaside community.

“You look back some years from then and basically all of the affected neighborhoods are upgraded,” said Laguna Beach City Manager Ken Frank, who also lost his home in the fire. “But it took a lot of pain and emotional suffering to get to that point.”

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Stuart, who lives near Cedar Glen, is eager to see rebuilding begin in earnest. But he, like many who flee the city for the mountains, is loath to lose the small and cozy cabins that gave Cedar Glen its character.

As the population swells in the flatlands below, the demand has risen for houses in many mountainous areas. Some residents worry that a developer will move in with tract homes.

The neighborhood was a “peaceful community where neighbors always greeted you and everyone enjoyed hiking in the forest” before the fire, Hayley Orecchio said.

Still, residents eager to rebuild express frustration at what they say is a slow, bureaucracy-ridden process.

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The fire was the “nail in the coffin,” in exposing the area’s susceptibility to disaster problems, said Tom Sutton, San Bernardino County’s special districts director.

“There’s not an exceptionally great reason for why it’s taking so long,” said Sutton, who also noted that because of Cedar Glen’s inclement weather, construction can occur only about half of the year.

After the fire, Arrowhead Manor Water Co., Cedar Glen’s main water supplier, went bankrupt. The county is in the process of buying it and anticipates closing escrow in April. The county plans to install large-capacity pipes and more powerful pumping stations.

But the roads are another story. Many of the winding paths, so narrow that firetrucks had difficulty navigating them during the wildfire, remain unpaved and caked with dust and debris. Only two roads in the community are paved, and many of the others are one-lane dirt roads dotted with potholes.

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Residents say the county has also been slow to deliver on early promises of loan assistance and grants. It took three years to establish a redevelopment district to handle the loans and grants.

The district is collecting property taxes that would otherwise go to San Bernardino County’s general fund, which should raise about $18 million over 30 years, said Kathy Thomas, director of the redevelopment district. The money will be used in part to repay a $10-million county loan approved two years ago for road and water improvements. This month, Cedar Glen property owners will vote by mail on whether to tax themselves to help maintain those planned road improvements.

The county expects an additional $3 million this year from a state disaster recovery initiative grant, Thomas said.

But besides waiting for the county, many homeowners who were underinsured when the fire hit are still haggling with insurance companies. Some feel duped by their insurers, saying they weren’t informed that their policies weren’t keeping pace as the value of their land appreciated.

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Richard Pretzinger, 79, attempted to replicate the appearance of his destroyed house where he and his wife had lived for 43 years, with its rustic fireplace and earthy interior colors. He was one of the first to move back in as he hurriedly finished the project for his ailing wife, Penny.

But the bottom floor is still bare because he ran out of money. He took $200,000 out of his retirement fund and was awarded the same amount by his insurance company. But the money covered the cost of rebuilding only half of his house, said Pretzinger, who has sued his insurance company.

“My contractor says that I’m tenacious,” he said. “This was our home and we knew we were going to rebuild it and there was no quitting. Three years later, we are only halfway done.”

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After watching her Cedar Glen home burn on television, Lorrie Monson also wound up taking her insurance company to court. After 14 months, she accepted an out-of-court settlement.

Since then, she’s been able to turn her full attention to rebuilding her three-story house on Pine Road. The walls have gone up and the windows and doors were installed, but her house still needs heat, electricity and paint.

This time, Monson replaced her original wooden house with one made of stucco.

“This is absolutely as fire-retardant as you can get,” she said, patting the house’s dull gray walls. “There are frustrating days, but the only thing you can do is keep going.”

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sara.lin@latimes.com

jonathan.abrams@latimes.com


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