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THE SOUTHLAND FIRESTORM: ONE YEAR LATER : New Home Can't Shut Out the Pain

October 26, 1994|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

O.P. and Rosemary Reed's new home rises on a Malibu hillside, a virtual replica of the house they lost in last year's firestorm--except that it has a basement, a bathtub for two and the latest defenses against flames.

Unlike the 30-year-old, all-cedar structure it replaced, the new house is all state-of-the-art technology. It features cement and faux-wood siding and concrete decks overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Windows are double-paned, tempered glass with metal frames. White plastic sprinkler heads dot the wood-paneled ceilings every few feet.

The project would seem cause for celebration. Indeed, the Reeds are thinking about throwing a "shower" on Thanksgiving, when the new home is scheduled to be finished. But the trauma of losing the first house, and the trials of building another, have cast a pall.

"I lost my past and I lost my future," said O.P. Reed, 73, a writer, editor and art collector. "I don't know how to get it back. I am like a man without a shadow. . . . I was writing three novels and they all burned. This whole wall used to be lined with thousands of books and they all burned . . . and paintings . . . all works done by friends, and most of them are dead."

As the flames sped toward the Reeds' house from Topanga in the east and across the hills of Malibu to the west on Nov. 2, all that the Reeds could see was a sky eerily blackened with smoke and a flame-colored sun above the Pacific. By 4 p.m., the Reeds had evacuated their house in two cars stuffed with possessions that included two paintings, two photo albums and important files. By midnight, their house had burned. It was the last one in the neighborhood to go.

Two days later, the Reeds returned to face the rubble that remained.

"I almost had a nervous breakdown," said O.P. Reed. "I am still stunned. It was just a pile of junk."

The Reeds' house is one of only a few of the 268 homes that burned in last year's fire to be rebuilt. The only completely rebuilt home, also in the La Costa neighborhood in east Malibu, was rebuilt in a record 10 months. As of last week, 29 building permits had been approved in Malibu and 60 more residents had submitted applications.

While some homeowners burned out by the firestorm have spent the better part of a year haggling with their insurance companies, the Reeds received their insurance money within two months of the fire.

Under an insurance plan that covers homeowners in high-risk areas, they received $300,000 for their house and $20,000 for its contents. The Reeds' architect said that in 1960 he paid $10 a square foot to build the original home, compared to about $120 a square foot for the new house.

They also received $98,000 from a Lloyd's of London policy that covered his art collection. "I lost a lot of artwork," said Reed, an expert on German Expressionist art who opened one of the first modern-art galleries on La Cienega Boulevard in the 1950s. "So that paid for a lot of it. I saved a Picasso and a Goya."

Another factor expediting the reconstruction was a quick geological survey that showed that the Reeds' property was not in an active landslide area, eliminating the need for subsurface exploration.

"We were lucky," said Rosemary Reed. "A lot of these people live in the slide zones, so they have to do about $15,000 worth of subsurface exploration. That cost is really what is holding them up."

Tenacity also helped account for the Reeds' relatively quick recovery.

"We used to go down to City Hall and camp 30 minutes ahead of time so we could be first in line," said Rosemary Reed, a weaver. "And once we'd get all our stuff in order, there'd be only one geologist and he was only there four hours a day, two days a week. It was just a task that took up my life. . . . No time for frivolity."

Getting plans through the city bureaucracy was no small task, either. The Malibu building department went from processing an average of 15 building permits a year to 175 in the 10 months after the fire, a surge that prompted the city to hire a second geologist and two more city planners. Despite the additional staff, the process moved at a glacial pace for most residents.

The city's good-faith attempt to keep pace did little to diminish the post-disaster stress that has gripped the Reeds and others who lost their homes.

"A neighbor said that if somehow you could record the fights that have happened over all of this, there would be such a scream coming from Malibu," said O.P. Reed. "People have separated over this. Couples fight a lot more."

For their new house, the Reeds turned to a contractor who had remodeled their kitchen before the fire. Their architect, John Reed, O.P. Reed's brother, designed the new home based on the original house's 1960 plans, which were drawn in the modern-organic style of Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Reeds' plans were approved in April and construction began the same month.

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