Fire Victims Begin to Put Disrupted Lives Together

Insurance firms pushed to do better than after 1991 Oakland fire

CALIFORNIA is trying to learn from its legacy of tragedy that has included three community-devastating fires in as many years. Less than 48 hours after wind-whipped flames laid waste to full hillsides of million-dollar, ocean-view houses here, the crush of official visitors included higher-than-usual numbers of claim reps from insurance companies.

``I'll give you $10,000 for contents and $10,000 for structural damage,'' said one insurance agent as she scribbled out a $20,000 check on the hood of a soot-covered Toyota. ``I'll take your $20,000 and raise you five,'' retorted recipient Frank Wright, standing in front of in front of 1561 Tahiti Avenue, until last week the site of his home of 30 years.

``We want to make it clear that we will not tolerate another Oakland,'' says state Sen. Art Torres (D) of Los Angeles. The insurance industry has gotten a black eye for foot-dragging in the months and years following the conflagration that destroyed 3,000 homes in Oakland in 1991. State regulators and consumer organizations are hovering like hawks here to avoid a repeat.

The presence of agents and adjusters shocked many residents returning to ashen heaps. Wielding computer printouts, many agents were ready with advances on future claims payable in cash. For several victims, the advances were a way to cope with immediate needs from clothes and toiletries to temporary housing.

``They actually came looking for me,'' says Mr. Wright, a local attorney who escaped with no possessions but the clothes on his back. ``For the moment, this [check] is all I have.''

For Wright and the owners of the estimated 310 homes that were destroyed in Laguna Beach, the checks represent the first step to rebuilding their lives. While he is still dealing with the shock of loss, Wright and others confront a sobering list of tasks.

Those include:

* Clearing his site of rubble by as-yet undetermined deadlines.

* Having the foundation examined for structural soundness, and either removing it or replacing it to build anew.

* Deciding if and when to rebuild and where to live while designs are drawn, contractors are signed, and permits attained.

The process, as proven by hundreds of cases in Oakland, takes years. The town itself is confronted with a different kind of soul searching. According to one insurance adjuster, the average claim will pay out $750,000 - totaling close to $225 million. As residents rebuild, how will they turn lessons learned into new zoning practices or building codes?

For now, the town's remaining neighborhoods are threatened with the same potential for fire that helped flames spread so far and fast last week. Those include houses packed tightly together at property lines, and narrow, winding streets.

As in Oakland and Santa Barbara, which lost 560 homes in 1990, there are calls to reexamine the appropriateness of such density before rebuilding starts. There is also the enforcement of foliage and dead-brush clearance regulations to be scrutinized, as well as building codes.

Many of the homes that escaped destruction were of glass, cement, and steel construction, or were not close to flammable brush and trees. Others were constructed with flame-retardant siding and shingles.

Victims in 15 other locations across the Southland are asking the same questions. Three days of fire have destroyed or damaged a total of 554 homes at last count while scorching 137,000 acres.

Many of the answers rest with the will of residents who weigh the convenience, cost, and aesthetics of their communities against safety.

Tania Thomas, a resident since 1986 admits that the serpentine streets and cul-de-sacs of lush foliage provided a dangerous labyrinth when it came time for 25,000 residents to evacuate. Her 24-hour ordeal of escape from surrounding fires included meeting walls of flame in two directions as she fled by car with mother-in-law, child, and cat. A third escape route proved to be the only exit.

But she says she would not remake the community in any way.

``We realize this is fire country,'' says Ms. Thomas. ``Narrow streets, canyons, and brush are part of what make Laguna the quaint town that it is. You accept a trade-off when you move here.''

For now, residents and communities are just picking up the pieces. Newspapers are full of special sections on how to cope with loss, stress, legal questions, insurance, and planning for the future. Community centers and churches are sponsoring donation drives for victims.

``Many here have already turned their sense of loss into great expectation for the future,'' says Lona Ingwerson, a homeowner in one devastated neighborhood.

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