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Fires Spared Their Homes, Yet There Is Sadness

For many, relief is tempered by empathy for neighbors who weren't so lucky.

November 24, 2003|Kristina Sauerwein | Times Staff Writer

On Thursday, Gloria Figueroa will give thanks that her house is still standing -- but not without another pang of the guilt that gnaws at her daily.

"The thought that I'm feeling bad about anything seems wrong," said Figueroa, 49, a nurse. "My house is OK. I'm one of the lucky ones. What do I have to feel bad about?"

In one horseshoe-shaped enclave in the Del Rosa neighborhood of San Bernardino, where wildfire destroyed 20 of the 34 houses, the emotions of neighbors whose houses survived fluctuate from happiness to sadness, sometimes all at once.

Thanksgiving, they fear, will magnify their conflicting -- and often confusing -- feelings.

Emotions range from being grateful that blazes bypassed their properties to heartbreak for families who weren't so lucky.

They're frustrated by the repairs needed to make their places habitable but relieved that they'll soon be out of hotel rooms and back in their homes. They're saddened by their neighborhood's war-torn appearance, while uplifted by vows to rebuild by those who lost everything.

Guilt burdens them, as they wonder why their houses endured while others' were consumed in the fire, one of several in Southern California last month that constituted one of the state's worst disasters.

But they welcome the guilt and sadness, because they know that if they lost their homes, they'd suffer more.

Psychologists call it survivors guilt, which affects people involved in a tragedy who fared better than others.

"It is normal and to be expected" when catastrophes such as wildfires occur, said Kenneth Meyer, a psychologist in San Bernardino. "Time will take care of a lot of the bad feelings."

Those who lost their homes in the foothill community -- encompassing North Dwight Way, East Ralston Avenue and North Camellia Drive -- half-joke that they wish they had such an affliction.

Figueroa understands. "What I'm going through is nothing in comparison" to losing a home, she said recently as she removed dead branches from her scorched backyard.

The single mother had just returned from a Weight Watchers meeting when flames rolled down Waterman Canyon toward the home she bought a year ago.

Figueroa was alone, frightened and unsure of what to do. Several neighbors, some of whom she barely knew, took care of her. They convinced her to evacuate and hosed down her roof.

They were there, too, when she returned with no hope that her house had survived.

"I had it in my brain that all I'd see is a fireplace and part of the rock facade," Figueroa recalled.

As she got closer, she saw her home. Tar oozed on the roof, mini-blinds melted, citrus trees sizzled, but the structure stood.

"I screamed, I was so happy," Figueroa said. "I just didn't believe it would be there."

Neighbors laughed at her reaction. They hugged her. Some had no homes, but they rejoiced with her.

"I was so happy to see it there," Figueroa said. "But I didn't want to be too happy. So many people had literally lost everything."

Figueroa confided her feelings to Tami Goldstein, a neighbor whose house turned to ash.

"Tami was so positive and nice," Figueroa said of the woman who also helped her evacuate. "She told me to be happy. She didn't want me feeling guilty."

Neither does Figueroa's family. On Thanksgiving, they will gather at her mother's house in the Imperial Valley. They will try to soothe her.

"They're very supportive," Figueroa said. " ... I expect it will be a hard day. I have so many blessings, but I still cry. All the feelings are in the pit of my stomach."

Emotions also tug at Donna Roth. Sadness overcomes the 72-year-old when she glances out her window and sees a row of six destroyed houses.

The scene is stark, resembling a black and white negative. Skeletal tree limbs languish in the rubble. Slivers of melted beams jut from the rubble. Debris carpets the ground.

"It's depressing," Roth said, looking at the ruins. "It's not my fault my house made it. But so many homes didn't. I don't understand."

What inspires her is talking with neighbors who plan to rebuild. "They are so positive," Roth said. "I always feel better when I see them.... I am so thankful for having great neighbors."

Bill and Lorna Lusk experienced similar emotions after they learned that the house they've lived in for nearly two decades withstood the fire.

"We were happy and sad," said Bill Lusk, 64, a retired probation officer, who sat in his living room and assessed the smoke damage to his home.

The home's exterior looks like nothing happened.

Inside, however, ashes dust the house. An acrid odor causes coughing. Lingering fumes seep into furniture and pollute the air.

The couple must spend thousands of dollars to remove carpeting, paint walls and seal wood. They must navigate bureaucracies, organize insurance-related expenses and oversee contractors.

They're tired of living in a Hilton. They want to go home for good. They feel bad for feeling bad.

Their adult daughter, an insurance claims adjuster who worked with victims of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, reminded them that their suffering is real.

"She tells us that just because the house didn't burn down, doesn't mean that we're not victims," said Lorna Lusk, 60, a retired social service aide. "This fire hurt everyone."

As she spoke, she gathered yellow daisies for a Thanksgiving centerpiece. Usually, the Lusks hosted the family holiday feast.

This year, they'll have it at their son's bachelor pad. The food will be catered instead of homemade.

"It will be weird this year," Bill Lusk said.

Then he smiled. "We have so much to be grateful for."

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