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After the fire, problems still simmer in Yorba Linda

Residents navigating the thicket of insurance appraisers, salvage companies and building contractors learn that the pain of watching a house burn down is just the initial blow in an extended ordeal.

February 09, 2009|Mike Anton

He is a one-man wrecking crew wielding a sledgehammer and a pickax who will soon discover the answer to a question people hope they'll never have to ask.

How many dumpsters does it take to haul away my house?

Daniel Hafner has been laboring to find out. The wiry 43-year-old handyman was hired by friends to tear down what's left of their home in Yorba Linda, one of 118 in the city destroyed by November's wildfire.

On a recent day, under a hot midwinter sun, Hafner was filling dumpster No. 7.

"There are jobs for men and there are jobs for boys," he said, pushing over what was left of a brick wall. "You just break it down into smaller pieces."

He put down his shovel, chugged some water and lit a cigarette. He removed his gloves and squirted cocoa butter lotion on his hands. Then it was back to work.

"It's terrible how you can lose all your worldly possessions in the blink of an eye," he said.

Last fall, fire hopscotched through this city of hilltop estates and tidy homes on cul-de-sacs. Now, those who are navigating the thicket of insurance appraisers, salvage companies and building contractors are learning that the pain of watching your house burn to the ground is just the initial blow in an extended ordeal with no easy resolutions.

Hollowed-out homes with see-through vistas of snow-capped mountains stand alongside lots that have been scraped clean and appear ready to be rebuilt on.

Grass sprouting on blackened hills hint at the recovery to come.

Gutted cars slowly turning orange with rust speak to how tedious the process will be.

"I wish I could say this will all be over within a year. But it won't," said Mark Aalders, an assistant to the city manager who has been working on post-fire issues. "It's going to definitely be a long time before we get back to normal."

Joe Miller's morass is instructive -- and most of his house is still standing.

"I stayed and fought the fire. I saved it," he said. "But in some ways, that's proven to be worse."

The 42-year-old Seal Beach police sergeant has seen plenty of firefighters rush into burning buildings in order to save them. He always wondered why. If lives aren't at stake, why risk your own life to save material things that can be replaced?

"I always thought, 'Man, if my house ever catches on fire, I'm just going to let it go,' " Miller said.

But when that abstraction became real, Miller found himself on the roof of his Aviemore Drive home peeling back tiles to stamp out flames. His garage, master bathroom and his two sons' rooms were heavily damaged.

"I had just completed a $250,000 remodel," he said. "New kitchen. New bathrooms. New windows, carpet, all new flooring. The pool area remodeled, $100,000 in landscape and hard-scape. All new furniture.

"I should have just let it go."

Miller believes that if it had been a total loss, his insurance company would have cut him a check and he could start to rebuild; he has adequate coverage. As it is, each week brings another frustrating surprise.

A contractor has suggested the fire may have damaged interior walls. But the only way to tell would be to tear into them, something his insurance company has yet to approve.

Other insurance issues remain cloudy. Smoke damaged, but did not destroy, mattresses, clothing, sheets, towels and upholstered furniture. His new backyard concrete patio is badly stained. Electrical wiring in undamaged parts of his home will need to be replaced -- how much is still unclear. Flat-screen televisions and other electronic gear still work, but Miller has been told that acid from the smoke will probably render them useless over time.

"The insurance company gave the OK for me to demo one wall. Now, they're jamming me, nickel-and-diming me," he said.

He points to the loss of eight large olive trees and several mature palms.

"They will only give me $500 per tree to replace them. It's going to cost me $500 just to remove each one," Miller said. "Every little thing is a battle."

On a recent Sunday, Miller and his displaced neighbors met at a local pizza joint. Relative strangers to one another before the fire, they bonded over their shared experience -- swapping stories, sharing tips. Miller was tasked with creating a website that can serve as a vehicle for an ongoing conversation in the months ahead.

"Once you go through something like this, you learn a lot about fire that you didn't know before," he said.

Across town, Vas and Kusum Arora didn't wait on their insurance company. The Big Horn Mountain Way home of the 67-year-old retired engineer and his wife was incinerated. While other damaged properties remain fenced awaiting demolition, the Aroras' home of 13 years was carted away weeks ago.

"My daughter, son and wife didn't want to look at that burned house," he said. "So that my family wasn't emotionally distressed, I paid out of my pocket. . . . Had it cleaned off in 10 days. I told my insurance company: I'll deal with you later."

But first, Arora and his family spent two days picking through the wreckage, looking for something of value.

"We found some metal pieces and I'm saving them for. . . . " Arora paused, not sure how to finish the thought. "Who knows? Memory sake perhaps."

For now, what he has is a feeling of accomplishing the first of innumerable steps on the long road to his family's recovery.

"I told my neighbor that I would try to get that property cleaned off as soon as possible so you don't have to get up in the morning, look out the window and see it," Arora said. "Being a good neighbor is important."

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mike.anton@latimes.com

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As the flames bear down

Mobile home owners tell lawmakers of fire safety concerns. PAGE 3

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