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THE STATE | SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRES

Signs of Hope Come to Light Through Ashes

A few trinkets tell one San Bernardino fire victim to rebuild. But it's not a universal message.

October 31, 2003|Kristina Sauerwein | Times Staff Writer

Tamara Baum found her first angel Sunday.

There the white porcelain figurine lay, unbroken and covered in ash, partly buried beneath singed beams, red roof tiles and melted metals.

Baum wondered if it was the only item that had survived the fire that ravaged her Spanish-style home, her first house.

"Then I found another one," the 35-year-old said. "Then another."

All told, four ceramic angels survived. And nothing else.

Like other residents in San Bernardino's Del Rosa neighborhood, where Saturday's Old fire in Waterman Canyon heaved flames onto at least 100 homes, Baum now spends her days trying to salvage mementos, shopping for toothbrushes, clothes and other necessities, looking for shelter, phoning insurance agents and wondering what comes next.

Already, signs of rebirth are evident, from utility workers restoring power and gas lines to contractors surveying a neighborhood struck by an erratic blaze that consumed some homes and spared others. Handmade posters thanking firefighters dot streets.

A florist's sign at Highland and Waterman avenues vowed: "Out of the ashes, S.B. will rise again."

Paint scrawls on a facade's arch -- remains of a torched house -- promise that "Momma Wecker will return."

Baum, too, plans to rebuild. She loved her house.

"See this?" she said Tuesday afternoon, as she and an insurance adjuster surveyed the charred rubble. "Here was our porch, where we watched the beautiful sunsets.

"This was an entryway with double doors, and here was our formal dining room. This was our kitchen. We had a double oven. It's melted. Our refrigerator too. We had a beautiful chandelier, and a baker's rack where we displayed china and cookbooks on the bottom shelf."

Baum and her best friend, Laurena Dudding, bought the 1,800-square-foot house two years ago, when low interest rates allowed them to jump into the housing market.

When they left their house early Saturday for the Claremont arts festival, the sky was blue. When they returned at 11:30 a.m., smoke from the fires made it look like night.

They grabbed Lucky, their Great Dane, three family pictures, insurance policies and a wedding dress inside a plastic container that belonged to a friend who lived in the San Bernardino National Forest. The woman was so convinced that a blaze would consume her home, surrounded by dead, bark beetle-infested trees, that she stored her treasures at Baum's house.

They grabbed what they could and got out.

"If the fire had legs," Baum recalled, "it was running right toward us."

Baum has been running ever since. Saturday, she hunted for information at the evacuation center at San Bernardino International Airport. She called Safeco Insurance. She found a place to stay, with Dudding's father in the Inland Empire.

She spent Sunday in tears. Part of Monday too.

On Tuesday, Baum met with Glenn Morris, a Safeco claims agent, who took one look at the debris and declared: "Take it down to the slab, it's all gone."

He shook his head in disbelief. The Southern California fires are "worse than Hurricane Isabel," said Morris, who was back East for the hurricane's aftermath. "It's the worst disaster I've ever seen."

By Tuesday afternoon, Baum was able to laugh at the situation. She had spent $700 the week before the fire to have her palm trees thinned, and she eventually wanted to expand the house by 200 square feet to include a kitchen island.

It's the angels that gave her hope. Baum found another one Tuesday, unbroken, covered in ash.

"Tell me this isn't a sign," she said, cradling the winged cupid. "It means, 'Come back and rebuild. Everything will be OK.' "

Katherine Smith isn't so sure. The 83-year-old had lived in her 2,900-square-foot ranch house since 1961. She helped draw its original plans, nurtured orange trees and built a sunroom with her husband, who died a few years ago.

"I cut the lawn," Smith said Wednesday, as she walked her home's blackened perimeter. "I enjoyed doing it. I cleaned the pool. I planted everything on this property. I had white birds of paradise. I was so proud of it. It took so many years. This house is a part of me.

"When you're my age and your husband is dead and your house gone, you just feel like you got nothing."

Frail, with dark hair and rouged cheeks, Smith appeared confused as she watched, wide-eyed, as church volunteers dug through the debris.

There went her charred microwave into a pile. Sheets of stucco, with melted nails, went into another pile. Tarnished trinkets lined the diving board; a CorningWare baking dish, an apple slicer and silverware.

Smith had no time to stand and stare. She had to call Allstate, which carries her homeowner's insurance. She had to find out about federal assistance. She had to decide whether to rebuild. She had to buy more underwear.

She had to check out of the Days Inn hotel because the $500-plus tab was getting too costly -- not to mention the mounting costs of eating out, gasoline and other necessities.

Smith has the help of her three daughters, who came in from out of town. She has family to stay with in San Diego.

"I found something," said a volunteer, handing her a coral earring. "I think we have the other one."

Smith eyes moistened."It survived."

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