The front door of the new clubhouse was flung open and 63-year-old Marie Vargas, moving as fast as her feet allowed, followed the crowd inside for the first time.
She looked at the ornate floor, the vaulted ceilings and the elevated stage — and smiled.
"Beautiful," she said. "It's like we're home again. It's as if nothing ever happened."
Almost two years ago, the Oakridge Mobile Home Park resident saw her own house and her community — the clubhouse and nearly 500 of the 600 manufactured homes — burn to the ground. Then her husband of 18 years died. She also learned that she had cancer.
But like hundreds of others whose lives were turned upside down in November 2008 when the Sylmar fire tore through the park, Vargas pushed through. And as soon as the wasteland of charred metal and ashes was hauled away by utility trucks last summer, she returned to the park and began to rebuild.
"I built my house to be exactly the same as the old one," she said. "I just need to plant my rosebushes again."
From the 210 Freeway, the 31-year-old community that once played host to parades and dances and potlucks now resembles a new housing tract: dusty and with a long way to go. It has half the homes it once had — 100 or so that survived the fire on the northeast end and an uneven patchwork of 200 new homes, mostly surrounded by barren lots. Few, if any, trees line the streets. And residents rarely ride past in golf carts as they used to.
Still, everywhere in Oakridge there are signs of a comeback — starting with the people.
On Friday morning, hundreds gathered to celebrate the opening of the new 16,000-square-foot clubhouse. The old building, devoured in the blaze, was considered the heart of the community.
Inside its Mission-style replacement, completed with a mix of insurance money and loans, excited families checked out their new workout room, pool, state-of-the-art kitchen, media room and craft room.
Above one of two fireplaces, a burnt American flag found in the rubble will be put on display.
Marion Thornton settled at a table in the auditorium with her husband, Austin, and savored the moment. The couple, married for 73 years, were among the first to move to Oakridge when it opened in 1979. They remained after the 1994 Northridge earthquake shook all 600 homes off their foundations, forcing neighbors to live in each other's garages as homes were re-leveled. And they returned eight months after their home, which survived the Sylmar fire, was deemed temporarily uninhabitable.
On Friday, Thornton, 91, reminisced about moving into the park. "We were so excited back then," she said."And now here we are, hoping we can live long enough to celebrate our 75th anniversary in this gorgeous, new building."
On Nov. 14, the night of the blaze, residents hastily packed what they could — mostly pets and important paperwork — before fleeing in their cars to the homes of friends and relatives. Winds were so fierce that even firefighters hurriedly dropped their hoses and ran for safety.
When it was all over, street after street was razed. For months, the only things that distinguished one pile of rubble from the next were improvised house numbers, spray-painted in neon orange on each driveway.
Inside a makeshift trailer, the world lined up at Ginny Harmon's desk — insurance adjusters, clean-up crews, utility workers and residents. Harmon, the park's manager, took charge of coordinating the transition.
When people broke down and cried, and they often did, she offered a mint and a long hug.
"You realize from one moment to the next you don't own anything — not a toothbrush, not a teaspoon, not a pen," she said. "But I never doubted we would eventually be OK."
Help poured in from local, state and federal agencies. Nearby churches organized a prayer service to give solace, especially to those who had no insurance to cover the loss of their homes.
After wrestling with mounds of paperwork and bureaucracy, some displaced residents collected payments and chose to not return to the park. Others continue to wait for settlement of their claims.
Judy Fassett was among those determined to rebuild the life she once had. She and her elderly aunt lost everything except for the clothes on their backs and a few photographs of Fassett's parents.
They returned about a year ago to a bigger corner lot a few parcels from where their old house stood. Their new forest-green home is just up the street from the clubhouse. A day before the opening celebration, Fassett, 57, scrubbed from her porch and windows the dust that collects from the empty plot next door.
"I want it to be nice and clean in case anyone stops by to take pictures of it tomorrow," she said.