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Rebuilding After Wildfire: Block Party in Their Future

A San Bernardino neighborhood figures a celebration plan is a good motivator.

November 10, 2003|Kristina Sauerwein | Times Staff Writer

The race to recovery began two weeks ago, just after the Santa Ana winds swept the last fireball onto houses in San Bernardino's Del Rosa community.

In one horseshoe-shaped enclave, where the so-called Old fire destroyed 20 of the 34 homes lining North Dwight Way, East Ralston Avenue and North Camellia Drive, the neighbors made a pact: Whoever rebuilds first will throw a block party to end all block parties.

Will it be Sam and Tami Goldstein? Every day, they cart away rubble that was once their three-bedroom home, decorated with antiques dating to the 1800s and walls Tami Goldstein painted in dusty mauves and country blues.

Or Dave and Susan Clark? They've already removed much of the debris of their 1,900-square-foot home, a house that was filled with toys for their three children as well as toddlers who attended Susan's home-based day care.

Bill and Kathleen Daugherty? People called their abode "the magazine house" because of its perfectly landscaped yards boasting an aviary, koi ponds, a pool with dolphin-tile insets and an outdoor kitchen.

Maybe someone else will earn the party-throwing prize. At any given daylight hour, the neighborhood near Waterman Canyon brims with workers busily transforming the ashen lots that bore the brunt of the wildfire, one of several that ravaged Southern California last month in one of the state's worst disasters.

Bulldozers scoop charred cars and other pieces of mangled, melted metal into city-owned dumping bins. Landscapers uproot charred citrus and palm trees. Insurance appraisers walk the street, assessing damage and cutting checks. Even architects drop by, ready to draw up blueprints.

It isn't really important to the neighborhood which house is first to rise from the ashes. The excitement comes from the prospect of restoring a foothill community that sprang to life after World War II, when developers built custom ranch houses among olive groves. It's a place where families have known families, sometimes for decades, and many homes belong to the original owners.

Now, it's a neighborhood steeped in sadness. Some longtime residents plan to leave the enclave and won't rebuild.

Better to smile than dwell on the losses, or the hard work and years of saving it took to buy one of the homes.

"Life only gets harder when you don't laugh," said Tami Goldstein, 41, who in the span of a week lost her brother-in-law to cancer and her "dream house."

The family also was unable to save its 12-year-old cat, Kit Kat, whose remains were found in the ashes.

In the morning hours before the fire hit, Goldstein was preparing for her brother-in-law's memorial celebration, which she was hosting. She washed her home's windows inside and out. She called a party rental place to order six tables and 50 chairs. She hoped that would be enough -- her husband's brother, who died the previous Wednesday at age 43, was a popular guy. But then came the smoke. They smelled it, they tasted it. They felt the extreme heat. They heard helicopters buzzing above. They saw the flames consuming the hillside behind their house.

"There's no way this is going to happen," Goldstein told herself at the time.

"My brother just died," thought husband Sam, 41. "It can't get any worse."

It did.

Palm trees shot embers onto their property, igniting blazes that consumed the home they bought two years ago. The couple grabbed their 11-year-old daughter, Stevie Renee, helped neighbors evacuate and sought safety and shelter with extended family.

The next day, the Goldsteins began planning for a new house in the neighborhood they love. They contacted their insurance company, the city and contractors. They tried to remember what they had in each room, scribbling items on a notepad: an 1800s upright piano, vintage guitars, a big-screen TV, pool table, antique perfume bottles and shavers.

Their sense of humor returned too. On their burnt-out property, they joke with neighbors about building a mansion. And how they're going to win the rebuilding race -- and throw the best party ever.

Of course, it's too early to tell who will win.

But Dave and Susan Clark had most of the debris removed from their lot by Thursday. That process hadn't even begun at most of the destroyed homes in the neighborhood.

It helps that Dave Clark, 38, works in construction.

"I know how long a process this can be," he said, surveying his lot last week. "I want to get plans to the city right away, before it's backlogged with all the other people who lost homes."

After the fire, he had no hesitations about staying. But Susan Clark did.

"This is a wonderful neighborhood," she said. "A lot of people aren't rebuilding. If they're not rebuilding, there's no reason to stay."

On second thought, Susan Clark, 32, thinks about buying a nearby property for a bigger day care.

"I don't know," she said, sighing. "It's a hard time."

Especially for the Clarks' three children, ages 2, 4 and 8.

"They worry a lot," she said. "They want to go home. They want their toys."

The Daughertys lived in their "magazine house" for 31 years. By all accounts, it was the nicest on the block. The couple, in their late 60s, adorned their home with deluxe furnishings and unique collections such as Elvis decanters, Disney's Jiminy Cricket memorabilia, 40 Hummel figurines, Depression glass and a banjo clock. They built a gym and decks overlooking the mountains. They installed a hot tub in the master bathroom, plush purple carpet in their bedroom and, two days before the fire, a 7-foot-waterfall outside their window.

"It was my hobby," Bill Daugherty said as he toured a neighbor's ruined home. "I moved bathrooms and walls."

They plan to put as much energy into the home they reconstruct.

"I always thought that if I won the lottery, I'd love to build my own house," Daugherty said. "I just never wanted to do it under these circumstances."

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