Perched above the smog on a hillside plateau, about 70 neighbors in the community of Duarte Mesa blocked off a cul-de-sac with an arch of balloons Saturday and set out tables in the street.
Nearly nine years after a wind-swept fire ravaged this well-to-do neighborhood, many of the residents continue to share bonds they formed after 35 of the homes were reduced to ashes.
Amid the ruins and confusion left in the wake of the Nov. 16, 1980, blaze, the neighbors opened their hearts and homes to each other, building lasting friendships and a tight-knit community out of the wreckage.
Clustered around five streets at the northern tip of Mt. Olive Drive, which is the only access road to the neighborhood, the homes are geographically isolated from the rest of the surrounding suburbs. "That's one of the things that makes us such a cohesive group," said resident Kathy Hancock.
Every summer and Christmas, the neighbors get to know newcomers and reminisce about the fire and the community spirit that surfaced afterward.
Beth Van Leuven, who lived in a trailer for three months among the ashes of what had been her home, remembers: "That first Christmas (season), I came out one morning and there was a Christmas tree sitting on my (car) hood." Neighbors were going house-to-house giving out trees to families whose homes had been destroyed.
"It brought everybody really close," said George Halburian, whose home was one of about 50 on the Mesa that survived the blaze. He and his wife, Shirley, invited their next-door neighbors--a family of five--to stay with them for a month until their house was rebuilt.
Elda Medina rented a condominium while her home was being rebuilt. "I was really down," she recalled. One neighbor provided clothing for all five members of Medina's family, and another gave them several hundred dollars.
"It had been a community that lived behind their bushes," said Yrata Nelson, who lost several trees in her yard, but not her house. "It took that fire to take the bushes away and bring those people out. The attitude was not stay with your property but go see who you could help."
"It was heartbreaking to see neighbors coming back and digging through the ashes," said Eleanore Whitaker, whose home also withstood the fire. "Some left without even their wallets; women were looking for their jewelry."
The pre-dawn blaze, which started in Azusa and was fueled by strong winds, swept across 6,200 acres, causing an estimated $15 million in damages. A 23-year-old Azusa man was later charged with lighting a campfire outside his trailer home that got out of control that night.
The charges were dismissed March 5, 1981, in Pomona Superior Court.
Despite the extent of the destruction, almost everyone decided to rebuild, said Dr. James Secrest, whose new house was ready the following spring.
"Everybody faced the same situation, having to live away from the Mesa and come up here to supervise the building of our homes. We would go to each other's houses for lunch, dinner. We were using everybody else's contractors."
But the homeowners' Duarte Mesa Assn., which before the fire had been quiet politically, took a more active role as the neighborhood was being rebuilt.
Duarte Mesa, at an elevation of 1,000 feet, is the city's highest neighborhood and commands impressive views of the San Gabriel Valley. Fears that overzealous owners might increase the heights of their new houses and obstruct the views prompted the association to ask the Duarte City Council to impose a height limit.
In 1981, the city imposed a ceiling of 18 feet for new construction, said Merv Money, a longtime Mesa resident and city councilman at the time. Today, any new construction or remodeling is reviewed by the Duarte Mesa Assn.'s board of directors, which passes its recommendations on to the City Council.
One owner who was rebuilding his home was reported to the city by the association after it discovered that he was exceeding the height limit. The city forced the owner to halt construction, and he modified his plans.
"We're a sounding board and an arbitrator," said association President Karen Nellis. "We make sure nobody's doing anything they're not supposed to do as a courtesy to the city and other homeowners."
Since the fire, the association has rallied residents in opposing a proposed trash incinerator in Irwindale and an increase in water bills. The incinerator plan was eventually defeated, but water fees were raised. After appealing to the state Public Utilities Commission in 1981, the association succeeded in preventing the neighborhood's quaint gas lamps from being replaced with conventional street lights.
Nellis said the association distributes monthly newsletters to all 86 homes and coordinates a neighborhood watch program.
"They're one of the most involved neighborhood watch groups I have," said Don Anderson, Duarte's director of safety coordination. He added that the crime rate on the Mesa is among the lowest in the city. One burglary has been reported so far this year.
"They epitomize what you want neighborhood watch to do: talking to each other, keeping track of neighbors' cars, schedules."
Everybody Knows Neighbors
"This is an unusual area just because everybody knows your neighbors," said Margaret Finlay, former co-president of the association.
"You just don't have that lost feeling like in a metropolitan area," Nellis said.
"This association is far more active and closely associated than it's ever been," Money said at the block party. As he sat at one of the gaily decorated tables, he recalled the day of the fire. He said he awoke at 3 a.m. and saw the telephone poles outside his house turning an eerie orange.
After sending his family down the hill, he climbed onto his roof to hose down the wood shingles. The fire spared his home.
"I stayed through the whole thing," he said. "I watched all the houses around me burn."