Oakland Hills Rebound After Fire

New homes rise from the ashes of the 1991 firestorm, representing stories of individual triumph

WE call it an elitist roof,'' says James Parcells with a smile, as he stands with his wife, Joan Diamond. He points to a copper roof shimmering in reddish metallic glow in the sun on their new three-story home. ``Guaranteed for several hundred years,'' says Mr. Parcells. In other words, the roof is fireproof.

For Parcells, and other homeowners in northern California's Oakland-Berkeley hills, ``fireproof'' has a nice ring to it. Many of their beliefs in guarantees about homes almost ended on Oct. 20, 1991.

A raging fire, fanned by hot Santa Ana winds, destroyed 2,400 homes and 24 lives in three days. As thousands of firefighters and volunteers tried to stop the fire, it raced through 1,800 acres of parched canyons and hills where homes were hidden among redwood, oak, and eucalyptus trees.

Today, the mostly naked brown hillsides are sprouting hundreds of new homes among the charred stumps of trees and tufts of grass. At first glance, the houses look willful and selfish: So many differing architectural statements, apparently made in defiance of one another, clash because of their proximity.

``A little busy, isn't it?'' says architect Jerome Buttrick of Regan Bice Architects in Berkeley, as he is driven along some ofh)0*0*0*the winding hillside roads. New homes, and homes under construction, are at every turn. He has designed five houses in the hills. ``The community spirit of those who have stayed and rebuilt,'' he says, ``has been amazing.

Without trees to interrupt the terrain and soften the settings, the homes look stark and self-conscious. The city says remaining foundations of the destroyed houses have to be removed by 1995.

Less-charitable critics have referred to some of the new houses as ``Formica Baroque'' or as ``hodgepodges of aesthetic deprivation.'' Landscape architects say it will be at least 15 years before newly planted trees and shrubs will grow enough to provide more of a neighborhood feeling.

According to city officials, between 25 and 40 percent of the new homes are not being built by the people who lost homes in the fire. ``Many owners got their insurance settlements, sold the land, and went somewhere else,'' says Arnold Mammarella, supervising design-review planner for Oakland. ``And as time goes on, this is increasing,'' he says. ``More houses are being built on speculation.''

But for homeowners who stayed, something deeper is at work that has shaped the architecture: the individual story of survival and triumph in each house.

``I think these houses reflect the diversity of the Bay Area,'' says Loma Chan, an interior designer who recently arranged a public tour of 17 new homes to raise scholarship money for the College Preparatory School, a private high school here which survived the fire.

``It's all a matter of taste,'' says Mrs. Chan, ``What one critic likes, another doesn't. The truth is that the houses are beautiful to the owners because they represent individual stories. Would someone want these to be tract houses?'' Several homes, she says, have won architectural awards.

The catharsis of rebuilding

Interest in the new homes can be measured somewhat by the reaction to the home tour offered by the College Preparatory School. ``We estimate that about 1,200 people turned out from all over the Bay Area,'' Chan says. ``Because of the fire all the usual landmarks were gone, and some of the streets are closed,'' she says, ``so we had to be very precise with maps.''

The school, saved by the courage and diligence of staff members and volunteers, was used as a community center after the fire.

For many owners, the act of rebuilding, while frustrating and long, has helped heal the sense of dispossession and deep personal loss after the fire left them with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

``We're still devastated by the fire,'' says Ms. Diamond, a grade-school principal, standing in her lively home filled with whimsical handcrafted art and colorful paintings and prints. ``We fought the insurance company for 16 months to get our money,'' she says, her eyes tearing, ``and we talked for a billion hours about the house we wanted.''

With Jeff Morse from Petaluma, Calif., as the architect, theh)0*0*0*1,850 square-foot cedar-shingled home is informal, open, and filled with windows and warm alcoves. ``What we wanted was a soothing environment in which to heal,'' says Diamond, ``so we're still finding our comfortable spots.'' Minutes later, while walking around the outside of the house, Parcells says softly, ``The truth is we'd still rather have our old house back.''

According to Mr. Mammarella, the new houses being built, while restricted almost to the same ``footprint'' as the old houses, are bigger, bulkier houses ``squeezing out to the edge of the lots.'' Some houses that were 2,000 square feet have added a thousand feet. In some cases, owners bought the lot next door. ``Inside many houses,'' he says, ``are bells and whistles of the latest appliances and technology.''

``After the fire,'' says Phil Philipps, a building-project supervisor for Oakland, ``we amended the building codes. All roofs have to be fire retardant now: no wood or shake shingles anymore; ceramic tile, asphalt, or fiberglass shingles are allowed with four or five layers of treated felt underneath.''

Exterior walls have to be of ``one-hour fire resistant'' construction, which means either stucco or wood siding backed with sheetrock. Exceeding the guidelines, a few contemporary homes have been built with exterior walls of aluminum sheeting; one new house is completely sheathed in copper. According to Mr. Buttrick, construction costs on some houses range from $150 to $200 a square foot.

Vents are no longer allowed where the roof hangs over the house, but have to be placed elsewhere. And if a hillside house is on stilts, the exposed underside has to be covered with sheetrock. To enhance earthquake protection, foundations have to be anchored now with deep piers and grade beams. One of the homes Buttrick designed sits on 60 concrete piers with the house attached by deeply embedded rods. ``No more of the rectangular pier footing of the past,'' Buttrick says. ``In terms of additional cost there is as much as $50,000 more here in some houses to tie everything down.''

New design goals

Following the fire, the city planning department of Oakland was suddenly overwhelmed with building plans and applications for building permits. A consulting firm was hired to develop a new design-and-review process based on a point system. ``There are 13 criteria for site planning, building design, streetscape, and landscaping,'' says Mammarella. ``Meet 10 of the criteria, and you can build.''

``The performance criteria are basically goal statements to make sure the design does not overwhelm the site,'' he says, ``and is sensitive to the topography. We provide the interpretive guidelines, and also ask owners and builders to watch a seven-minute video presentation in the application process to illustrate the elements in the criteria.''

In positioning a garage, for instance, the guidelines say it should not be the overwhelming feature seen from the street with a lot of pavement in front of it. ``But it really depends on the site,'' Mammarella says, ``because the streets around here areh)0*0*0*crazy and the hillsides are often steep.''

Even with new homes and the architectural changes, many residents are still piecing their lives together in the wake of the fire. ``The primary lesson we learned from the fire,'' Carolyn Collins says, ``is that we are responsible for ourselves way up here.''

Mrs. Collins and her husband, Jim, who now live in a contemporary house at the top of the Oakland hills, used to have a house that seemed to float like a treehouse. They lost everything in the fire. As the fire came closer, three firetrucks arrived at different times near their house. ``But none of the hoses fit the fireplug,'' Mrs. Collins says. ``One of the firemen said he didn't know we were up here.''

Fire-retardant landscapes

The Collinses, and the nearby neighbors, want to buy their own fire hoses now for future protection. In compliance with new landscaping suggestions for fire clearance, there is minimal fire-retardant low ground cover reaching away some 30 feet from their house. The fire department now gives out warning ``tickets'' to home- owners who blatantly depart from the new landscaping suggestions.

Because landscaping is often the last thing to be done on a site, owners in the hills have been required to put up a $2,500 landscaping bond to make sure landscaping is completed. Every homeowner was also given a 16-page brochure from the city with suggestions for landscaping, including planting fire-resistant trees such as coast live oak, Western red bud, and carob instead of eucalyptus, acacia, or cypress.

On the day of the fire, Collins and her young son had left their home earlier to go shopping. Returning to the parked car, she dropped the car keys down a grating and couldn't retrieve them, thus preventing her from returning to the house just before it burned.

Not until several hours later did her husband - away from the house - learn that his family had not been inside when it burned.

``It took my husband and me nine months to realize we couldn't build a treehouse again,'' Collins says, describing the difficulty many residents had in getting beyond their attachment to the past. ``When an interior designer told us a home is really a feeling, it sounded so simple, but it helped us enormously.''

The Collinses rebuilt their house in six modular sections, much in the shape of their former house, but used upgraded materials and craftsmanship. Standing in her wood-paneled living room, with a stunning view of the Bay Area out a window where thick trees used to hide the view, Collins says, ``We lost our whole past, everything. The rebuilding process seemed to drag on and on, and we could never talk about anything else. It's strange. What you lose, you place more value on. But we feel much better now.''

After the fire, Judy Espovich, her husband, and son lived in a hotel for two months. Although they lost everything, their cat somehow survived, severely burned, but back to normal now.

``We started out saying we wanted our old home back,'' says Mrs.h)0*0*0*Espovich, who works in marketing, ``but we expanded our horizons.'' Their new home, which is the same size as before but less of a cottage, will be completed soon.

``We wanted to stay here,'' she says, ``because of the wonderful diversity in the Bay Area, the temperate weather, the opportunities. People wonder how we can stay because of the fire and earthquakes, but more people died last year in the winter in the East than here, if comparisons are worth anything. And after you've survived a couple of earthquakes, they aren't so bad anymore.''

The fire forged a greater bond in her family, she says. ``You have to go on and rise to the occasion. We have a much better and safer house than before,'' she says. ``The difficulty has been to do everything over again, all the things that take a lifetime to accumulate. Birth certificates, passports, tax records, licenses. You do what you have to do and let the other things slide. Compared to what's happening on Bosnia or Africa though, we don't have it so bad.''

Like an extra job

Seated in the dining room of her new two-story, Tuscan-style villa in Berkeley, Selma Dharan described her family's previous house as a ``treehouse surrounded by redwoods, cypress, and palm trees.'' Now, a tile roof and loggias with rolling arches at the front entrance mark the large off-white stucco-and-cement house, which is perched on the side of a hill next to a small landscaped garden.

Several design and structural mistakes did not make the construction of the house an easy experience. ``You can't say, `Oh, no, another mistake,' and not pay to have it corrected,'' Ms. Dharan says. After more than two years of grappling with all the details of the aftermath of the fire, the first day she and her husband and two girls spent in the house without construction workers ``was such a peaceful feeling,'' she says.

``We had to replace everything,'' she says, a situation that all families shared. ``Everything we did after the fire was like holding down three or four jobs while doing your regular job. The constant problems, all the focus on material possessions was too much at times. Now I'm hoping we can lead a normal life again.'' -PATHNAME- /usr/local/etc/httpd/plweb/DBGROUPS/paper/database/tape/94/jun/day27/27091.

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