YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

A rise from the ashes -- perhaps

Cedar Glen, near Lake Arrowhead, was charred in 2003, but few homes have been rebuilt. Some fear its identity may be lost.

March 04, 2007|Sara Lin and Jonathan Abrams | Times Staff Writers

CEDAR GLEN, CALIF. — Four years after a raging wildfire all but reduced this small Lake Arrowhead community to ash, only 30 of 336 homes destroyed have been rebuilt, leaving residents to fear that the once-affordable mountain hamlet may never recover.

Instead of the settlement being an out-of-the-way pocket of cottages popular with vacationers and resort workers, some worry that the new Cedar Glen, high in the San Bernardino Mountains, may ultimately be transformed into yet another getaway for the affluent as former residents are unable to shoulder soaring reconstruction costs.

"Cedar Glen will never be what it was," said David Stuart of Rebuilding Mountain Hearts and Lives, a group dedicated to assisting reconstruction efforts.

Other neighborhoods lost in the string of Southern California wildfires in the fall of 2003 -- which were the worst in California history, scorching more than 738,000 acres and killing 25 people -- have largely recuperated. Nearly all of the 300 homes lost in the San Diego communities of Scripps Ranch and Tierrasanta have been rebuilt, and more than two-thirds of the 330 homes destroyed in the San Bernardino neighborhood of Del Rosa are in the reconstruction process.

None of these areas, however, faced the unique problems confronting Cedar Glen, established 80 years ago as a camping ground for vacationing Angelenos. The 25-by-100-foot lots, known as tent lots, are not allowed under today's building codes.

Here, residents seeking to rebuild also face narrow, decrepit roads; a bankrupt municipal water company; a substandard sewer system and modern building codes. Some insurance companies refuse to issue policies until roads and sewers are built. Many residents were underinsured and county grant programs designed to help have been slow to arrive.

"On a scale of one to 10, on the frustration level, it's been a 17," said Kevin Ryan, a Cedar Glen resident who lost his home but still hopes to rebuild. "It took three years to get things in place for them to decide what they would do over the next five years. Obviously, it's not on the fast track."

Ron Despars also lost his Cedar Glen house, but the 76-year-old was determined to rebuild.

Despars, a retired paper salesman, slept in the back of his van for six months before moving to the bare wooden floors of his slowly rising new house. He is among the lucky few to rebuild.

"It wasn't easy," Despars said, sitting on a stump outside his house smoking a cigarette. "I had to deal with building and safety about building too close to property lines and meeting new codes."

Despars made his new house the same size as the last. A scattering of his neighbors' houses are in various stages of repair. But for the most part, the destruction left behind by the arson-caused Old fire that raced up the mountain from San Bernardino remains untouched.

Scorched foundations and charred chimneys jut out of hillsides like tombstones. Towering forests of oak and pine have been replaced by blackened stumps. Some residents cut their losses and sold their lots to neighbors. Many who managed to come back, like Despars, had building experience, Stuart said.


Amid the ruins are signs of hope. There are new structures surrounded by scaffolding and piles of wood and bricks. The noise of saws and hammers is welcomed by weary residents.

Some are using the opportunity to remodel their homes in grander fashion.

Frank and Hayley Orecchio's new garage is as large as their old house. Frank Orecchio, an iron contractor, constructed a three-bedroom wood-planked house next to it after buying the adjoining lot. The couple live there year-round.

"It was almost a blessing in disguise," said Hayley Orecchio, 29. "Everybody helped us out and instead of having an old, small, cold cabin, we have our dream house. I hope everybody who wants to come back is able to because it is a beautiful place to live."

Wildfires in other areas also have spurred rebirth -- and transformation.

After a 1993 Laguna Beach blaze destroyed more than 300 houses, many residents sold their lots to the wealthy, who replaced ranch-style homes with mini mansions. The new neighborhoods attracted a more affluent crowd who helped reshape the formerly artsy, bohemian town into today's glitzy seaside community.

"You look back some years from then and basically all of the affected neighborhoods are upgraded," said Laguna Beach City Manager Ken Frank, who also lost his home in the fire. "But it took a lot of pain and emotional suffering to get to that point."

Stuart, who lives near Cedar Glen, is eager to see rebuilding begin in earnest. But he, like many who flee the city for the mountains, is loath to lose the small and cozy cabins that gave Cedar Glen its character.

As the population swells in the flatlands below, the demand has risen for houses in many mountainous areas. Some residents worry that a developer will move in with tract homes.

Los Angeles Times Articles