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Fire victims in the Valley gather at prayer service

March 08, 2009|Esmeralda Bermudez
  • Janice Fisher, who lost her home at the Oakridge trailer park in Sylmar, finds a moment of peace. The three fires displaced more than 600 residents.
Janice Fisher, who lost her home at the Oakridge trailer park in Sylmar,… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

Some wake up in the middle of the night thinking they can still smell the smoke. Some remember how the ashes choked their lungs when they breathed. And some, without thinking, reach for belongings -- a favorite pair of shoes, a worn-out blanket, the remote control -- only to find they are no longer there.

Four months after fires tore through the northern reaches of the San Fernando Valley, displacing more than 600 residents, victims of the Sayre, Marek and Sesnon blazes gathered Saturday morning for a prayer ceremony. It was a solemn event with about 100 people streaming into a small auditorium in search of guidance and "a little peace of mind."

They bowed their heads and raised their hands in prayer as a Christian band performed and ministers, along with a few political figures, took turns speaking. For some, this was the first time they had gathered with other victims since firefighters evacuated them from their homes last fall, never to return again.

"There may be some confusion as to why things were suddenly ripped away from you, but restoration will begin," Pastor Ken Pientka of the Church on the Way in Van Nuys told families.

All the while, Janice Fisher closed her eyes and nodded with an exhausted frustration that comes with losing her home of 14 years at the Oakridge Mobile Home Park in Sylmar, only to find she had no insurance. Her husband's wellness business burned in the blaze, along with four generations of family antiques.

"This reminds me that I have to stay positive and be patient," said Fisher, who is staying in a home in Valley Glen.

Many of the families saw an outpouring of help from the community in the first days after the fire, but since then, attention has dwindled. Sylmar hillsides once charred and clouded by smoke from the Sayre fire are now lush and green, but most families have yet to return home. Many days are spent on the phone arguing with insurance companies and government agencies over delayed assistance.

And, beneath it all, there's the grief. Grief that goes from denial to anger to depression and, for a few lucky ones, acceptance. Stephanie Dorci arrived wanting to relax for a moment and set her stress aside.

The 66-year-old did not lose her home at Oakridge, but it sustained significant damage and she is unable to return. She sat down next to her former neighbor, who was also displaced, and listened to the strumming of the guitar onstage.

"I walked in here and had a good feeling," she said.

The event was organized by 50 volunteers from six churches in the area. Some of the clergy who spoke had personally helped many of the families during the fire as they huddled on cots at nearby schools. They offered counseling and prayers.

"We want you to know, we are here with you," said Pastor Eric Thomas of Christ Community Church in Winnetka. "You have not been left behind."

Los Angeles Councilman Richard Alarcon thanked everyone for being patient.

"Our community has been through a lot," he said. "But our tenacity, our will to survive, will get us through this and make us better."

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esmeralda.bermudez@ latimes.com

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