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Residents Ponder Questions That Remain Unanswerable

October 28, 2003|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

Gerald and Barbara Friedman were in the Virgin Islands when they learned of the Grand Prix fire. They watched on television as flames moved toward their Claremont neighborhood.

More than a full day later, as they made their way to California, their son called to say their home of more than 20 years had been destroyed. Their neighbors' house, 25 yards away, was untouched.

On Monday, the Friedmans sifted through the rubble, grappling with the fickle nature of the fire, trying to understand how one house could be consumed while another, only yards away, stood immune to the blaze.

It was a puzzle that defied scores of homeowners trying to comprehend what they had done right or wrong. In the end, there were few answers.

Fireproof composition roofs went up in flames. Fire-prone wood decks stayed safe. Yards of ice plant, a fire-resistant ground cover, were charred, and easily ignitable trees such as deodars withstood the onslaught of sparks and embers.

"There is no rhyme or reason," said Victoria Shea, who lives down the street from the Friedmans. "It is fickle."

Tiny Padua Hills, along Via Padova where the Sheas and Friedmans live, sits in the foothills at the edge of Claremont Hills Wilderness Park. The community is perched on a canyon. Many of the homes had stunning views.

Fire had touched the upper-middle-class enclave before, in 1979. A neighbor of the Friedmans lost his home in that blaze.

This week, the fire ripped through the hills, traveling west. It raced down Potato Mountain, slammed through the ravines and climbed up into Padua Hills, claiming seven homes.

One belonged to Vern and Deb Jahnke. They had moved into their 1948 house just over two years ago.

"I don't think, 'Why me?' " said Vern Jahnke, 54, a social services director at a retirement home. "The question is, 'Why here?' "

The first thing Jahnke noticed when he returned to their home Monday morning after an overnight evacuation was in his backyard. There, a large tree had been transformed into an upright log, its limbs severed and blackened.

All that remained of his house was the front facade. Gaping holes were all that was left of two windows. The frame of the front door opened into charred emptiness. Inside were the skeletons of two leather chairs, pieces the couple had bought as Christmas presents to themselves last year.

Vern Jahnke keeps trying to understand what happened. Did his neighbors stay when they'd been ordered to evacuate? Did he do the wrong thing by leaving?

"I want a rational explanation," he said. "I've been working on that."

Deb Jahnke, 52, and a speech therapist, is more philosophical. "It happened, and now the question is, 'What are we going to do?' "

Across the street, Victoria and Mike Shea spent the day cleaning debris from the yard of their two-story Mediterranean-style home. The house was undamaged, even though a tree in their yard burned.

"I watched the fire come off those hills. It was moving so fast, it was causing small tornadoes of flames," recalled Mike Shea, 53, an architect.

Returning to their 80-year-old home, the Sheas had been stunned. Their house had a wood deck. But it remained untouched. The kids' old gym set, sitting by the charred tree, was spared.

"Any of this could have caught fire and it didn't," said Victoria Shea, 48, a probate attorney. "I don't know why."

Down curvy Via Padova, the Friedmans sought mementos in the ruins of the house where they had raised their three boys.

Their pottery and dishes had been reduced to shards. Footage of Dr. Gerald Friedman's family with President Truman and scenes from pre-Castro days in Havana were destroyed.

Only the chimney remained of the house that had been built by sculptor and painter Millard Sheets, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright.

After sifting through rubble, the Friedmans found two pairs of elephant tusks picked up on a trip. They found the metal canister that once held family film footage. "We've lost everything," said Gerald Friedman, 63.

The Friedmans had taken precautions against wildfires. They had cleared brush. They installed a water pump so they could douse the roof. But they never had the chance to turn it on.

Struggling to get home Sunday in the face of canceled flights, the couple called their housekeeper and asked her to save family photos. It was too complicated to explain how to work the pump.

The housekeeper snatched up some pictures, and she drove their three cars to safety. When she returned to the house for her own car, it was engulfed in flames and the Friedmans' home was burning.

The Friedmans said they will rebuild. Crying, Barbara Friedman, 51, tried to explain why.

"Our lives are here. A fire could happen again, yes. There's that worry," she said. But "our kids grew up here. I can't say goodbye to that."


Times staff writer Nora Zamichow contributed to this report.

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