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THE SOUTHLAND FIRESTORM: ONE YEAR LATER : New Start Stalled by Bureaucracy


The mudslide that dragged Steve Young and his truck down Pasadena Glen did not drive him from his home. Neither did the firestorm that incinerated his house last fall.

Catastrophes are part of life in this rustic enclave in the San Gabriel foothills north of Pasadena, where nature often reminds residents that they remain at her mercy.

"It has its disasters around here, but you go with the flow," Young said with a shrug.

Adversity of a man-made kind is a different matter, though. The avalanche of bureaucracy involved in rebuilding and the seemingly endless fight to win an insurance claim have been some of the biggest challenges that the tight-knit Young clan has faced in the year since fire rushed through the tree-shaded canyon.

Neither Young nor his father Don Young, who also lost his house in the fire, has begun rebuilding. Indeed, like most fire victims they do not even have building permits, much less insurance settlements.

"It's one big battle," Steve Young said. "This whole canyon is trying to jump up on these insurance companies and City Hall to get these things taken care of."

The blaze began Oct. 27 after a homeless man started a campfire to warm himself. Twenty-eight homes in the Pasadena Glen--126 in the entire Altadena area--were destroyed.

As the blaze spread early that morning, Young and his neighbors worked relentlessly in the upper glen, brushing off red-hot embers as they doused his parents' house and others nearby in a fight against the advancing fire.

When the flames ignited the house next door, Young decided it was time to escape. But when he sprinted down the road to his own home, he found the pines next door ablaze. The fire had depleted so much of the oxygen in the atmosphere that his truck would scarcely start.

Steve Young's home burned to the ground, as did his father's. The fire destroyed 100 trees that used to shade Don Young's yard and provided oranges, lemons, limes and macadamia nuts. After shoveling out heaps of smoldering ash from the ruins, the Youngs, like other shellshocked fire victims, learned that their problems were just beginning.

They found out that their insurance coverage fell far short of the actual amount they would need to rebuild. Their policy is with California Fair Plan, an insurance pool for homeowners in high-risk areas and a source of frequent complaints from homeowners burned out in the blaze.

Some policyholders say California Fair Plan rejected their requests to purchase more coverage and neglected to tell them that they could buy "code upgrade" policies, which would pay for the costs of stringent new building requirements. Fair Plan spokesman Mike Harris, however, said that information was mailed out to policyholders, who were responsible for making sure their coverage was adequate.

Only five of 126 homes destroyed by the Altadena firestorm have been rebuilt. In Pasadena Glen, where nearly half the homes burned, only one has been rebuilt.

"The reason why people can't move ahead is because the insurance companies are not operating in good faith," said Linda Williams, president of the Pasadena Glen Improvement Assn.

In addition to insurance problems, the soil testing and seismic testing required for building permits have stalled the progress of some homeowners. Although Steve Young's home was on relatively flat land, his father's abutted a steep slope. And they can't even begin planning a home until the soil test is completed.

"We have to determine how close we can build so we can determine how to build," Don Young said. "We have an architect ready to start drawing as soon as we know what we can do."

Still, they maintain, the wait is worth it.

"There's no place else you can live in the heartland of Los Angeles and still be in the foothills and have the deer and the wildlife," Steve Young said. "It's a natural love."

Born in Pasadena, Young moved to the glen in 1967 with his parents and brother. He remembers riding bikes, climbing trees and "playing with snakes and spiders."

In 1969, a storm dumped rain on the glen for a week. When the flood broke, Young said, "we could hear the rumbling, and we could see cars rolling down like surfboards."

Eleven years later another flood hit on Feb. 14, a furious Valentine's Day greeting. Young was returning from a party at 2 a.m., and, hearing a menacing rumble, rushed up the road to warn his family and neighbors.

He reached them in time, but as he turned to leave, the crashing mud overtook him, tossing his truck over and throwing him out the back window.

"The very first thing I said when (the truck) rolled me over, was, 'This is finally it, I'm dead,' " he said.

Neighbors fished him out as he neared the bottom of the canyon. His clothes, except for a belt, were ripped entirely off, as was the skin on his knees. His teeth were chipped and his head was gashed.

Although he was house-sitting in Sierra Madre when mudslides struck in February, he returned to videotape the raging creek from the spot where he was swept away 14 years earlier. Then in the spring he came back to stay, camping in a tent at first and then moving into a trailer, unperturbed by the spring rains that threatened further floods.

"You can't get us out of here," Steve Young said. "We'll fight tooth and nail. You've got to accept the bad with the good."

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