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Rising From a Wildfire's Ashes

For some in a San Bernardino neighborhood, homes are nearly rebuilt after last year's inferno. For others, the struggle for stability continues.

September 20, 2004|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Standing in the ashes of their once-beautiful homes in San Bernardino last November, the Daughertys and the Goldsteins made a bet. The first family to rebuild would throw a block party to end all block parties.

Almost a year after one of worst wildfires in state history laid waste to their Del Rosa neighborhood, there's no contest.

The Daughertys' luxurious two-story home is almost finished. Its stucco exterior rises toward the parched flanks of the San Bernardino Mountains, where the firestorm that rained down on this close-knit community started Oct. 25.

"I'm doing great; everything's falling into place," said Bill Daugherty, 69, a UPS retiree who has spent 12 hours a day, seven days a week at the site overseeing reconstruction. "Our goal is to be back in by the anniversary of the fire."

Two lots away, the Goldsteins have spray-painted "Underinsured" and "God Bless -- Keep Believing" in white letters on their cinderblock wall -- all that remains of their three-bedroom home.

"I still cry almost every day," said Tami Goldstein, 41. "Let's just say it's not assuring to be insured."

The wildfires that ravaged Southern California in October destroyed more than 3,600 homes, killed 26 people and burned more than 738,000 acres.

Twenty of the 39 postwar homes in this horseshoe-shaped Del Rosa enclave burned to the ground on a single Saturday afternoon. Today, North Dwight Way, East Ralston Avenue and North Camellia Drive are lined with both nearly finished homes and charred lots.

Many residents have endured a year of struggles with insurance adjusters, architects and contractors, months of sleeping in unfamiliar beds, and a daily seesaw of despair and gratitude.

"It's quite something on a daily basis to be displaced," said Tami Goldstein, who said she and her family have carefully stored the "new house" shower gifts in the emptiness of their rental home. "It's just not your house. We don't hang up anything on the walls. You just survive. It's odd."

Inside her new home half a block away, Della Boehler, 60, says little things can still bring tears. "I went for my old potato peeler, and I realized it wasn't there," she said. "I just cried and cried."

At the Daughertys, workers' trucks, portable toilets and a trash container compete for space with a gas barbecue grill and Kathleen Daugherty's tomato plants.

Inside, a sense of loss still lingers.

"I'm so sorry; you'd think I'd be over this by now," Kathleen Daugherty said, dabbing away tears. There is no joy in picking out carpet colors or furniture, she said. She can't stop thinking of her mother's irreplaceable antique crystal inkwells and one-of-a-kind dining room chairs, not to mention the family photos -- all lost.

Daugherty can joke about some things. "They were poached," she said of the tropical fish that boiled to death in their hand-tiled koi ponds.

While Bill Daugherty shops for a 75-inch television set, Sam and Tami Goldstein are bracing for hours of videotaped interviews by their insurance company's attorneys.

The Goldsteins say they will be lucky if they're back in the quiet cul-de-sac a year from now. Battles with California Insurance Group, headquartered in Monterey, mean they have done little more than cart the remains of the old home away.

"Atrocious" is attorney Brian Heffernan's description of how the insurance company has treated the Goldsteins. Heffernan, of Engstrom, Lipscomb & Lack in Century City, accused the insurance company of "trying to scam these people of at least six figures," and is threatening legal action.

But Tom Scherff, vice president of claims for the company, also known as California Capital Insurance, defended the company's handling of the Goldsteins' claim. He said that although the company initially made an error and underpaid by about $97,000, it admitted the mistake the day it was pointed out to them in March.

He said the company has already mailed checks totaling more than $200,000 to the couple, which they have chosen not to cash.

"I think the mistake was obviously not acceptable, but in terms of overall coverage we provided them with significant sums of money within three months of the loss," Scherff said.

The grass is definitely greener on Arnie Johnson and Della Boehler's side of the fence. They called Farmers Insurance the morning after the fire and were back in their home by May 1.

"Ben Hahn. He moved up north. He was 85, he took his money and moved up to his daughter's," Johnson said, assessing the neighborhood.

"Look at these three lots, all vacant. I wish something would start. It's lonely, it's danged lonely. We can't wait for more people to get back."

Johnson, a retired construction worker, keeps an eye on the neighborhood.

"People are closer now. You see a strange car and you find out who it is," he said. "This fire started with some guy going down the road throwing flares out the window."

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