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THE SOUTHLAND FIRESTORM: ONE YEAR LATER : Eclectic Enclave Will Again Be Eclectic, but Not the Same


LAGUNA BEACH — For 18 years, Michael and Lynn Lindsey cherished their lives in Canyon Acres, a tiny, cockeyed community known for its rustic old houses, breezy ambience and laid-back residents, many of them artists.

Their days were brightened by simple pleasures and gentle surprises: a peacock napping on a chicken coop, chickens roosting in the apricot tree and neighbors chatting around a fire pit after sundown. To many, this jerry-built enclave was "old Laguna," a haven for free spirits.

Now, a year after a firestorm incinerated their beloved home and most of their eclectic neighborhood, the Lindseys have learned that it's not easy to reinvent funk.

Their new house, now outlined by stakes rising from their property, will be a compromise of sorts--an effort to create both the home of their dreams and a dwelling to suit the offbeat community.

Like most who have filed permits to rebuild in the year since last October's fire damaged or destroyed 441 homes in and around the city, the Lindseys are building bigger.

The 2,100-square-foot house they say should be under construction by Christmas will be about 50% larger than the one that burned.

But by rebuilding the home in an unusual, elongated shape, incorporating the use of river rock, weathered redwood and barnyard beams, and capping it all with a staggered roof line, Michael Lindsey thinks the new house will project the rustic patchwork quality of the community they loved so much.

And he trusts that his neighbors' creative inclinations will help keep the rebuilt Canyon Acres from becoming a community of cookie-cutter houses.

"I think we're going to have some real unusual and diverse architecture," he said. "It's going to be interesting to see how the overall neighborhood comes together."

Despite two new structures that have popped up on Canyon Acres Drive--incongruent visions of fire-resistant stucco and tile--John Harwood, the architect who designed Lindsey's home, agrees that the new Canyon Acres won't be mistaken for one of Orange County's beige, planned communities.

"I don't think it's going to look like Irvine," he said.

Lynn Lindsey, a sixth-grade teacher in the Capistrano Unified School District, was smitten with Canyon Acres from the day in 1976 when she drove into the neighborhood and spotted a dog snoozing in the street--a sign, she figured, of a tranquil lifestyle.

The couple's sons, Krisean and Seneca, both now teen-agers, grew up climbing hills, playing in a nearby creek, picking fruit and selling plums and lemonade in their front yard.

"We felt safe with the kids there," said Michael Lindsey, a landscape architect whose family is now renting a furnished house elsewhere in Laguna Beach. "They'd be at your house for a while and then they'd vanish and be off in the hills or at a neighbor's house. You didn't worry."

For Lynn Lindsey, the realization that her life had changed forever did not sink in until a month after the fire. She was in a motel room, where the family had temporarily taken refuge, when "a very surrealistic feeling" enveloped her.

"It was like a giant hand had picked me up out of my life and put me somewhere else," she said, her voice choking with emotion. "And you couldn't go back. There was no way."

Krisean Lindsey recalled the October day the disaster changed his way of life. He was at Laguna Beach High School when someone yelled, "The canyon's on fire." He darted home to save what he could.

"I grabbed my snake, my iguana, my comics and some other little things and took off," he said.

After Krisean left, his father watched as a wall of flames rose from the canyon's sides.

"That was when it really sunk in that the house wouldn't be there when we got back," Michael Lindsey said.

Today, much of Canyon Acres still lies in ruins. And it is too early to tell how the post-fire Canyon Acres will evolve.

Although 60 of the community's 90 homes burned, only 11 rebuilding permits have been issued. Residents blame stalled insurance settlements, bureaucratic difficulties and unexpected geological concerns for the delays. (The other burned neighborhoods in Laguna Beach are rebuilding at a faster clip.)

"All this has really worn people down," said Gabrielle Harwood, John Harwood's wife. "Most people are really frustrated and feeling it's never ever going to happen."

The Harwoods also lost a new home they were building in Canyon Acres when the fire struck. They have since scrapped the plans for that more rustic dwelling and will rebuild with concrete and metal, Gabrielle Harwood said. She had always wanted a modern-style home, but--until the fire--felt it would be inappropriate for the countrified community.

"Before we were going to build in a canyon style to make it more old and funky, and now we're going to go more modern," she said. "Now that everything's coming up new, there didn't seem much point in us building old."

Despite the setbacks, Michael Lindsay said he remains optimistic about the future.

"The neighborhood's going to be a different kind of neighborhood when it gets built back," he said. "It's going to be new houses with new looks. (But) I still think the old neighborhood sense of community will be there."

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