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Momentum Builds in Laguna : Recovery: As first anniversary of firestorm approaches, burned-out homeowners have shaken off shock and quickened pace of reconstruction.

Momentum Builds in Laguna. FIRST IN A SERIES


LAGUNA BEACH — Nearly every weekday, Martha Lydick visits her fire-scarred Mystic Hills lot, watching with growing excitement as workers make steady progress toward replacing the home she lost one year ago.

Toting a small automatic camera, Lydick, 52, joyfully records each tiny step forward, adding the latest photographs--of concrete caissons, retaining walls or the newest sprigs on her ground cover--to a bulging red album now almost a foot thick.

"Finally, after all this time, we're on our way home," she says, her voice heavy with relief. "Now we know it's really going to happen."

For Lydick, her husband, Lawrence, and many other victims of last October's devastating Laguna firestorm, the early frustrations and fears have given way to hope as the din of construction echoes across once-blackened canyons. Heavy trucks lumber along the narrow streets, barren lots sprout contractors' signs and the buzz of saws competes with the pounding of hammers in a welcome cacophony.

One year after the most destructive fire in Orange County history hopscotched across this seaside community, nearly two-thirds of those who lost their homes have begun the laborious task of rebuilding. The Oct. 27 blaze destroyed or damaged 321 homes here and 120 more in the unincorporated enclaves of Emerald Bay and the El Morro trailer park.

Although only four new homes owned by fire survivors have been completed so far in Laguna--and none is yet finished in Emerald Bay--the pace of rebuilding has quickened lately, city and county officials said. About 70 "fire rebuilds" are under construction inside the Laguna Beach city limits, with about 20 more on their way in Emerald Bay.

Still, as the anniversary approaches, many who lost homes to the flames recall with chagrin the goals they set for themselves early on. Some were certain they would be back in their homes by the Labor Day that passed last month. If delays cropped up, maybe Thanksgiving, they said, but by Christmas for sure.

Instead, slowed by geologic uncertainties, disputes with neighbors--or simply still stunned by their losses--many have yet to break ground. Across Laguna, lots still lie vacant, marked by charred chimneys and blackened trees.

"We were naive," concedes Robert F. Gentry, a longtime Laguna city councilman who lost both his Mystic Hills home and a Skyline Drive rental property. "None of us knew anything about what it takes to build a house under these circumstances. We'd never done it before."

The handful of houses rebuilt in time for the anniversary is far fewer than almost anyone imagined. But most interviewed said the pace seems slow primarily because of unrealistic hopes, not unreasonable delays by government agencies, insurance companies, architects or others.

"I'm distressed at how long everything takes, but I can't blame anybody," said Cort Kloke, 47, whose plans for his new Mystic View home are scheduled to be heard by Laguna's Design Review Board on Thursday, the anniversary of the fire.

"I just have never done this before. My expectations weren't founded on knowledge."

In fact, in several areas, the Laguna fire victims appear to have outpaced their counterparts who lost homes in the deadly Oakland hills blaze three years ago. Twenty-five people died in that October, 1991, wildfire, another 150 were injured and about 2,700 homes were incinerated, making the size and scope of the blaze far greater than in Laguna.

By the first anniversary of the Oakland blaze, 78% of the fire victims had reached at least partial settlements with their insurers, although many homeowners later were found to be underinsured, according to a spokeswoman for the state Department of Insurance.

In Laguna, 98% of the claims have by now resulted in at least a partial settlement, according to the Los Angeles-based Western Insurance Information Service, a consumer education group affiliated with the industry. Comparable statistics from the Department of Insurance will not be completed for several weeks, spokeswoman Candysse Miller said.

In Oakland, one year after the fire, 38% of those who lost their homes had filed the paperwork required to start the rebuilding process, according to city officials. Now, at the three-year mark, 75% of the dwelling units have been rebuilt or are under construction.

In Laguna, one year later, nearly two-thirds of those whose homes were destroyed, or 189 of 286 households within the city limits, already have embarked on rebuilding. In Emerald Bay, nearly half of the 60 destroyed homes are in the process of rebuilding. And in the El Morro Beach Mobile Home Park north of Laguna, owners already have replaced 34 of the 40 trailers consumed by the flames.

"From everything I've heard, people have been much better off in Laguna," said Robert Bruce, publisher of the East Bay Journal, a newspaper that he started as the Phoenix Journal, dedicated solely to survivors of the Oakland blaze.

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