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Fire Victims Grateful Despite Losses

Disaster: Though many lost personal property in Shadow Hills Apartments blaze and as many as 124 need temporary housing, tenants are thankful to be alive.


THOUSAND OAKS — Michele Haggard returned to her residence at Shadow Hills Apartments on Monday morning to find it gutted.

Years' worth of memories, photographs of her three sons, nearly all her family's belongings--save a set of keys and a pile of quarters--had melted in an inferno the day before.

The good news was she was alive. So were her boys. And Haggard, a petite, 35-year-old sales support representative, was a hero. She rolled her wheelchair-bound neighbor down three flights of stairs--one step at a time--as flames engulfed one of the city's few affordable housing developments Sunday afternoon.

"It's just stuff," Haggard said of her losses. "Yeah, there's baby pictures, but I'm divorced, so my ex-husband still has half of them. It'll be OK. My kids are OK. My friends are OK."

Hundreds of other residents of the 101-unit complex also counted their blessings. No one perished. Only minor injuries were reported. Several children in less affected units were relieved to find that pet birds and cats they left behind in the rush had survived.

But as many as 124 people will be displaced for at least a week. Of those, 20 or so may not be able to return to their apartments for as long as three months, said Lisa Safaeinili of Many Mansions, the nonprofit group that operates this and five other low-income housing projects in the city.

As members of this affluent suburb's working poor, many of those evacuated have nowhere to go, no clean clothing to wear and no money to buy food or to replace what they have lost.

In this upscale enclave where a typical two-bedroom apartment rents for $1,249 and minimum-wage workers may wait years for spots in the available affordable housing, officials were scrambling Monday to sew together a safety net for the Shadow Hills residents.

Three apartments were gutted and at least four more were seriously damaged in Sunday's fire at 227 E. Wilbur Drive that began shortly before 4:30 p.m. The amount of structural damage to the $2-million complex, which is not far from The Oaks mall, had not been determined by Monday evening, said Ventura County Fire Department spokeswoman Sandi Wells.

Residents and housing officials believe the blaze began when an overturned lamp in one unit caused the carpeting to catch fire. Investigators had yet to agree on an official cause, but had ruled out arson and electrical wiring problems, Wells said.

Tenant Araceli Carpio told a reporter that she walked into a bedroom inside her first-floor unit and found a lamp tipped over and the lamp and a bed on fire. Fire officials confirmed that the fire started in Carpio's unit.

Officials were confident they could secure government vouchers to subsidize rent for most of the displaced residents while their apartments are rebuilt. But they doubted they could find enough openings within city limits toward which to apply the subsidies.

"Our problem is going to be one of inventory," said city housing director Mark Asturias. "Where are we going to put the people?"

Red Cross officials said 19 residents of the complex spent Sunday night at a shelter set up at Thousand Oaks Community Center on Moorpark Road. The shelter was to remain open Monday night as well.

There was no interim preschool plan for 40 area children whose Head Start classes, held on the grounds of the apartment complex, have been canceled until further notice.

The search was on for volunteers in the Thousand Oaks area who could offer temporary housing for short-term residential displacements, and officials said they had received some calls from neighbors who offered to pick up the tab for weeklong stays in nearby hotels. Local schools and churches began collecting clothing and other supplies to help residents of the apartments.

Weary from a night of little sleep, residents of the complex--a mix of Latinos, blacks and whites--gathered in the Shadow Hills parking lot Monday morning. The air hung with the day-old stench of fire, and charred walls still dripped water. Dazed, sock-footed children wearing the clothes in which they had fled the night before ate snacks and told volunteers their shoe sizes. Their parents hugged and swapped stories, waiting for the go-ahead to reenter what remained of their apartments.

Many Mansions' insurance policy was expected to cover the costs of repairs to the building--but not losses to residents' property. And housing officials said most residents did not have renter's insurance.

Rose Montano, 52, who was rescued by firefighters, spent Monday morning at the Thousand Oaks Community Center, signing up for clothing and other Red Cross donations. Montano works as a baby-sitter, and her boyfriend, Miguel Desoto, 49, cobbles together a living doing odd jobs.

"We don't know what we're going to do right now," Montano said. "We have no home, no savings, no nothing. I can't believe all this has happened."

Talev is a Times staff writer; Isaacs is a correspondent. Correspondent Holly J. Wolcott and Times staff writer Timothy Hughes also contributed to this report.


Contributions to an emergency housing fund to assist those displaced by the Shadow Hills Apartments fire may be made to the Fire Family Assistance Fund, c/o Many Mansions, 80 E. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks, CA 91360.

For more information on the fund or to donate food, clothing or other supplies, call Many Mansions at 496-4948 or call the American Red Cross of Ventura County at 987-1514.

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