A fresh start at Oakridge

The exhilaration was palpable as Adam and Candy Kessler arrived Wednesday at their freshly built residence in Sylmar's Oakridge Mobile Home Park -- he driving a U-Haul van filled with the couple's furniture and personal belongings, she following in a car.

With them they also brought a resolve to help resettle a tight-knit community that was largely destroyed in last autumn's wildfires.

"We're very excited," said Candy Kessler as she prepared to enter the yellow manufactured home they ordered to replace the one lost in November's Sayre fire. "It feels surreal. It's been 10 long months, with a lot of challenges and ups and downs."

Heartbreak, frustration and worry had finally given way to joy as the Kesslers became the first family to move into a newly constructed property in the Oakridge Mobile Home Park, which is still a patchwork of barren dirt lots and concrete slabs and is largely devoid of landscaping.

The wildfire devoured more than 11,000 acres in the San Fernando Valley and destroyed nearly 500 residences, most of them in the Oakridge park. Residents were scattered far and wide. Although some have decided to forsake Oakridge and put down roots elsewhere, others are trying to return. For the Kesslers, the journey has finally ended.

"I'm overwhelmed," said Adam Kessler, 52, as he prepared to unload the moving van. "It's just a weird feeling coming back. But it's nice to be home."

The couple moved to a new lot on Olive Street to accommodate their larger home -- a 2,600-square-foot, open-plan, three-bedroom dwelling. They used to live on a smaller site in another part of the park.

Of the 600 homes originally in the park, 101 were cleared for residency shortly after the fire and 17 required repairs. The rest were destroyed or damaged beyond repair, according to statistics cited by city officials at the time. The park was subsequently closed for six months, even to those whose homes were saved, as crews removed hazardous materials, the rubble of trailers, remnants of furniture and charred palm trees that used to tower overhead.

The Kesslers, parents of five adult children, spent a few days living at a daughter's home in Canyon Country, then moved to a hotel before relocating to a two-bedroom apartment in Valencia.

Friends and family rallied around the Kesslers, giving them comfort. At Christmas, the Stonefire Grill Corp., a client of the Kesslers' pressure washing and steam cleaning business, threw a party for them. Guests brought gifts, including furnishings, linens and even a TV.

The Kesslers said they kept in touch with many old neighbors, speaking by phone and attending community meetings at a local school. Hundreds attended the gatherings, and the couple even made new friends.

That helped ease some of the sadness and loss. But the anxiety remained. There were tears.

For weeks, Candy Kessler would wake up at 3:30 each morning -- the exact time that firefighters had banged on the door of her old home and ordered the family to evacuate because of the approaching blaze.

"For months and months and months, we would just lay there in bed, and say, 'We want to go home,' " Candy Kessler said.

There was never any doubt they would return, although Candy Kessler admitted she still felt "very nervous about the wind" and the prospect of future fires.

"It's still a beautiful park," Adam Kessler said. "And it's a really nice community. It's centrally located. It's close to family. I like the security, the beauty, the people."

That's not enough to woo John Johnson, 65, a retired postal worker, back to Oakridge. Johnson, who had lived in the park for five years before losing everything in the fire, dropped by Wednesday to greet the Kesslers.

"It looks so depressing," said Johnson as he surveyed the landscape of primarily vacant lots. "It looks like a war zone."

Helen Tiede, 63, who is still waiting to move into a recently erected contemporary 1,620-square-foot manufactured home a few lots away from the Kesslers, acknowledged that she was a little concerned about having to look out over a wasteland strewn with debris for possibly several years to come.

But she said her love for the "great, little community" where she and her husband had lived for nine years before the fire is what brought her back. Now, she just hoped for the return of more neighbors.

Today, 90 homes that sustained little or no fire damage have been reoccupied, said Ginny Harmon, Oakridge's manager. And 130 lots have been cleared in preparation for new structures.

Harmon expected her own new home to arrive today.

Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon, who represents the area, said the Kesslers' return was "an indication we're back on track."

"There is a general sense of recovery and pleasure that people are able to go back in and restore their lives," Alarcon said.

So on Wednesday, Candy Kessler, who also happened to be celebrating her 60th birthday, directed her husband and a small crew of movers on where to place boxes and arrange furniture, while she and her daughter Deanna Steidl vacuumed, stacked items and unpacked.

"Now the work begins," Candy Kessler said. And she has no complaints.



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