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Choosing to Live on the Edge of Disaster

June 02, 2005|Karin Klein | Karin Klein writes editorials for The Times.

When I was a child growing up in Yonkers, N.Y., my mother would lull me into a sense of security by extolling the virtues of our particular longitude and latitude. No earthquakes like in California, she'd say, and no tornadoes like in the Midwest. Only the tail ends of hurricanes, unlike those poor people down in Florida.

I have never been able to tell my children the same reassuring tales about our home. We are tucked away in Upper Bluebird Canyon, a Laguna Beach neighborhood accessible by only one road and so devoid of destination points -- not a school or store to be found -- that, until a disaster like Wednesday's landslide, even many Laguna residents didn't know about it.

Unlike the rounded, built-out hills of suburban New York, nature in our canyon is clearly still in charge. The 1978 Bluebird Canyon landslide occurred about a decade before we bought our house and was still a fresh memory in town when we moved in. All around us are steep, jagged hills of sage scrub that have been declared a wilderness reserve. Deer eat flowers I try to plant. I have opened the front door and found a coyote standing on the walkway, staring me in the face. Rattlesnakes sun themselves on the streets.

When we bought the house in 1988, we hadn't been looking to live in a wilderness encampment or a landslide zone. But we wanted Laguna Beach, its physical beauty rising from the ocean, its slight quirkiness, its sense of community. And, shopping in the hot real estate market then, it was the maximum we could afford -- $259,000 for a 1965 ranch house, no view, no charm, no "walk to" anything, but enough bedrooms for a family to grow.

How was I to know I would fall into enchantment with living, as do so many Southern Californians, in suburbia on the edge of wilderness, which also happens to be the edge of disaster?

When I grew up and took summer jobs in New York City, my mother showed me how to hold my purse so it couldn't be snatched, how to walk to avoid muggings. Now I show my children how to make raucous noise to scare off a coyote, how to back off slowly from a rattlesnake. On walks, I have them taste the sour lemonade berry and the anise flavor of wild fennel.

I tell my children rustic tales of reassurance. How lucky we are, I say, to live in the back of a box canyon. With Bluebird Canyon Drive the one road in and out, no criminals want to come here. It's too easy for the police to seal off.

That single road in and out took on more menacing meaning when we were evacuated during the 1993 fire that swept through the area. Had the fire entered the canyon at points below us, we would have been cut off.

As it happened, the fire turned back when it was still a ridgeline away. But when we came home, after the evacuation was lifted, I found glowing embers around the house. We reassure ourselves that the goats the city sends out to to chow down on the brush will prevent future catastrophe.

We talked our way out of worry again during the rains three months ago, when the house around the corner made national television by cracking and threatening to plummet downhill. Smaller dirt slides pocked the hillsides and slipped onto the street. Well, we said, we'd been watching that hill erode for years. We knew that was a trouble spot. And after all, we installed modern drainage on our property! I've gotten accustomed to the e-mails and calls -- we saw Laguna on TV, are you OK?

The calls came again on Wednesday, after I'd left the canyon, my car weaving amid the emergency vehicles on Bluebird Canyon Drive. Alongside the road, charming little houses that I've passed every day for 17 years were tilted askew, as though a giant hand had pushed them a couple of feet. I've seen elderly couples from some of those homes take their daily walks. On a knoll, the gigantic new house that looked like a hospital and was rumored to have been built by Frank Sinatra's widow was a cracked mess. I bet that house had modern drainage too. Even those whose houses survived have lost. They'll return to a scarred ghost of a neighborhood.

I'm out of rationalizations. All I have left is my connection to my strange little "low-end Laguna" neighborhood. Our neighbors are dear to us. It's so quiet, the loudest sound is usually birdsong. I know the one place in the canyon where the woolly blue curls bloom with their sapphire intensity each spring.

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