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Healing Process Is Far From Finished : Disaster: Signs of rebirth are mixed in with reminders of the blaze. But some residents have still not been able to rebuild.

AFTER THE FIRE. One in an occasional series on victims of the June 27 Glendale fire.

June 27, 1991|PHIL SNEIDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Claire and Ted Lamb are luckier than most of those who lost their homes in Glendale's worst fire one year ago today. They're already back in a rebuilt house on Sweetbriar Drive.

Yet even now, 12 months later, the Lambs have not shaken off the trauma of watching their house, their furnishings and their treasured family mementos consumed by a furious, wind-driven blaze.

"I have nightmares all the time," Claire Lamb said recently. "And every time I hear a siren, I run outside to see where it's going off. I still envision all those flames and the house burning. It's still so vivid in my mind, even after all this time."

Though the embers cooled long ago, her husband is still nursing a grudge against Glendale Fire Chief John Montenero, charging that his department did a poor job of fighting the fire.

"I'm sure Montenero wishes it would go away, and I do, too," Ted Lamb said. "But it won't go away."

The College Hills fire, named for the area where it began, left plenty of scars. It destroyed or damaged 64 houses and caused about $19 million in damage, according to fire officials.

Although no one was killed or seriously injured, the fire inflicted great financial and emotional damage on residents who lost their houses. A year has passed, but the healing process is far from finished.

The fire occurred on an unusually windy summer day when the mercury had soared above 100 degrees. A still-unknown arsonist ignited a hillside just south of Glendale College. The fast-moving flames jumped across rooftops and devoured dry brush to move from one cluster of houses to the next.

Today, charred vegetation, a few piles of rubble and twisted bits of yellow police tape are the most visible reminders in the three neighborhoods scorched by last year's fire.

But there are also signs of rebirth. Construction hammers are pounding at a steady pace, and many lots that were still marred by debris at Christmas have been cleared.

A recent Times drive-by survey of the 45 most seriously damaged houses found that 13 had been rebuilt or were near completion. Another 11 were under construction. On 21 other lots, no construction activity was apparent.

In interviews, some owners of the lots where no rebuilding has begun said they have been delayed by insurance negotiations, design changes and city reviews. Many said they expect to begin reconstruction soon.

"I didn't think it would take this long," said Linda Knutson, a sheriff's deputy who lost her home on Gladys Drive. "But, then again, I've never been through this before."

Knutson and her husband, Edward, have about two-thirds of the funds they need to rebuild. They hope to start by the end of the summer. "We were terribly under-insured," Knutson said, echoing the most common lament among the Glendale fire victims.

About $4 million of the fire's losses were not covered by insurance, Glendale officials estimated in October. The Lambs, the Knutsons and many other fire victims had to draw from their savings or apply for low-interest government loans to rebuild and refurnish their houses.

Although their house has been rebuilt, the Lambs have left several rooms empty because of the strain on their finances. "All the furnishings cost three or four times as much as they did years ago," Claire Lamb said.

Homeowners who did not increase their damage coverage in recent years must shoulder part of the blame themselves, said Mike Harris, a spokesman for California Fair Plan.

Fair Plan is a joint venture of property insurance companies that covers residents in high-risk areas, including Glendale's hillside neighborhoods. After the College Hills fire, Fair Plan paid $4.9 million to owners of 17 houses that were destroyed and 24 houses that were damaged.

"Most of those people had been in their houses for a number of years," Harris said. "As most people do, they just tend to renew it as-is every year, even though the property values were continuing to go up."

Kevin and Adriana Smith were among the most under-insured of the fire victims. The Smiths, both surgical nurses at Childrens Hospital in Los Angeles, spent several months last year sprucing up an older house on Glenmore Boulevard, then bought it for $200,000 from Kevin Smith's family in a private land transfer.

Less than two months later, before they had updated the insurance coverage, the house was destroyed. The Smiths were still responsible for about $180,000 in payments on the destroyed house and had to raise another $250,000 to build a new one. Until they can rebuild, they must also rent an apartment for themselves and daughter Elissa, 2.

The Smiths' outdated insurance policy provided just $60,000 for the house and $15,000 for the contents. "It would probably be enough to build a garage," said Kevin Smith, 28.

Because of the enormous debts, "we work day and night," said Adriana Smith, 33. The Smiths' co-workers chipped in $5,000 so they could clear the rubble from their lot.

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