One Year After Devastating Fire, Rebuilding in Oakland Isn't Easy

STEVE RENTEN leans out over the deck of his Oakland hills home and points to where last year's massive fire swept right up to his house.

"The fire came up and melted our power lines," Mr. Renten says. "That's how close the fire came to destroying our home."

Some of Renten's neighbors battled the blaze that started Oct. 20, 1991 - exactly a year ago - with garden hoses, while tanker pilots dumped water from a nearby lake onto the flames. They managed to save the homes on this isolated hillside.

But many hill residents weren't so fortunate. When the three-day fire ended, officials estimated that it caused $1.5 billion in damage, destroyed 2,777 dwellings, and killed 25 people. It was the worst urban fire in recent United States history.

One year later, construction crews hammer nails and fit joints on houses dotting the hillsides. But the rebuilding is slow, as residents battle insurance companies and city bureaucrats in an effort to put their lives back together.

So far, some 600 people have received permits to rebuild their homes, accounting for about 20 percent of the dwellings destroyed during the fire. City officials estimate that an additional 1,400 permits will be processed this year and in 1993.

Given the problems with collecting insurance and the economic hard times facing the area, residents and city officials alike say the rebuilding is proceeding better than expected.

Peter Dempsey drives up into the Oakland hills twice a week from his rented apartment in the flatlands. "I just want to reestablish my connection to the local community," he says, "and to see what my neighbors are doing."

The self-employed computer consultant lost a house and all his personal belongings in the fire. But, he says, his insurance agent had assured him that he was fully covered, so he expected prompt reimbursement.

However, Mr. Dempsey maintains that his insurance firm low-balled the estimates on rebuilding his house and tried not to pay the full replacement cost of his personal possessions. The company recently settled his claim, but only after feeling pressure from other angry policyholders and state insurance regulators.

Ina De Long, president of a consumer group called United Policyholders, says many residents still have not resolved their insurance claims. So far, she says, her organization has helped some 2,000 fire victims get hundreds of thousands of dollars from reluctant insurance companies. "And we're not finished yet," she adds.

Phil Schram, regional underwriting manager for Allstate - one of the insurance companies involved - declines all comment about policyholders' complaints. "We're working with the insurance department to resolve these issues," he says.

Residents also say they faced roadblocks from city officials, particularly in the first months after the fire. At one community meeting, homeowner Renten says, Mayor Elihu Harris "was shouted down by an angry crowd of 1,000 people."

But since early this year, the city has responded better to residents' needs, homeowner association leaders say. The city has set up a one-stop center to expedite the granting of building permits.

It is also trying to bring back the area's ecosystem by encouraging homeowners to plant fire-retardant vegetation. The city bought Tiger Mowers, specially equipped backhoes, to clear underbrush and dead trees from public land.

Renten, who now co-chairs a coalition of homeowner associations, gives the city an overall "B-" grade for its response since the fire. It's "a bureaucracy that is learning to respond," he says.

Ezra Rapport, Oakland's deputy city manager, laughs appreciatively when he hears the "B-" grade.

"I think it's a good grade," he says. "People came out of the fire very angry at the city."

Mr. Rapport points out that parts of downtown Oakland were devastated by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and the city barely had time to recover before the fire hit. Many residents had unrealistically high expectations of what the city could do, Rapport adds.

"It is really impossible for any local government in California to provide a very high quality level of services given our resources," he says.

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