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A Family Triumphs Over Flames

October 31, 2003|Dianne and Philip Fradkin | Dianne Fradkin is a bookkeeper; Philip Fradkin has written extensively about natural disasters in California, in such books as "The Seven States of California: A Natural and Human History" (University of California Press, 1997).

Fire, along with earthquakes, is part of life in California. There is a good life after both, believe us.

Our home on a ridge in Marin County burned to the ground 15 years ago. Philip was out of town; Dianne escaped with only her wedding ring. We sold the lot and moved to flatter ground. The house that was subsequently built on our old lot was destroyed along with 40 others in a 1995 wildfire.

We have thought a lot about fire in the last few days, and want the most recent victims to know that despite these dark days, life will return to normal. The bad news is that you are going through one of life's worst experiences. The good news is that there are people who care for you. Let them care for you.

You will miss what seem like irreplaceable possessions -- work, art, photographs and the tangible reminders of your past life. The sense of loss gradually lessens, and the gratitude to just be alive and well builds. You will feel the warmth of the sun on your skin and feel incredibly fortunate.

Meanwhile, life is far from normal. Increased levels of anxiety, inability to concentrate and sleeplessness are some of the symptoms we experienced. There is a multitude of decisions to be made: where to rent (we moved four times), where and what to build, insurance, loans, contractors, architects, lawyers and endless forms to fill out and goods to buy, if you are fortunate and have insurance.

It is amazing how resilient we all are, but sometimes you will break down. Don't isolate yourselves. Accept kindnesses and offers of help. Believe us, you will have the chance to reciprocate.

Some nuts and bolts:

Go very slow on insurance settlements. Be cautious and ask advice. Insurance companies pose as your friends when you are in need, but they are in business to make money.

Think carefully whether you want to rebuild or sell and move. Philip wanted to rebuild; Dianne wanted to move.

Find something that you can do together that has nothing to do with the fire. We discovered the San Francisco 49ers in a Super Bowl season. Philip became a rabid fan, so stay away from drink or drugs.

Find a good counselor or a therapist. Ours gave us practical tools to fight the inner fires. Dianne was afflicted by the immediate horror; Philip had to deal with the loss of all physical evidence of his past.

Encourage friends and family to give you reminders of your past, like photographs and family mementos that have a history. We treasure these symbols of our pasts, both separate and shared.

Things change. Dianne ate a lot. Philip couldn't read. A joint decision made three months earlier suddenly became an intense issue between us. The counselor helped.

For the first few years, the anniversary of the fire was an extremely painful day; but as time passed it became dimmer until a few years ago, when we forgot it. That time will come for you too.

You are a fire victim now, but you will triumph over fire. You will never forget it, but at some point you will no longer be pained by it.

Believe us.

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