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167

Arnold G. York

Dealing with fire grief

Sunday morning Karen and I drove up Corral Canyon to see what the fire had left behind. Fire crews were mopping up many of the still smoldering homes and the smell of burned wood, metal and ash was everywhere. There is a unique odor to a burned out house that sears itself into your brain, an odor you never forget. The first whiff brought back memories of our own burned out home in the 1993 fire.

We looked at a house near El Nido, which once, I’m sure, had been beautiful, and no matter what it may have looked like in life, in death all burned houses look the same. I began to think of the owners coming back to see the wreckage, picking through the debris for something familiar, remembering all the time they spent picking out just the right thing for that corner near the entry and now it was all just rubble.

Unless you’ve had the experience it’s hard to imagine the feelings when one looks at their destroyed home. Destruction of a home is like a death in the family, and you go through many similar stages of grief.

First, you can’t believe that it’s happened to you. Things like this happen to other people, not you, and your emotions jump all over the place. One moment you’re angry, the next depressed and then, most all, there is a great sense of fatigue that settles over you, and you wonder where you’re going to find the energy to do everything that has to be done. When there are children involved, they’re very edgy and frightened, and they pick upon your tension and you spend a lot of time reassuring them, even when you really feel you need reassuring yourself.

One of the things that is lost is something that you didn’t even know existed until it was gone: a sense of normalcy, a sense that your life is in order and everything is in its place. After you’re burned out nothing is in its place, and suddenly there are ten thousand things to do. You need a new place to live, clothes to wear, insurance and dental floss and toilet paper. You may laugh, but most of us have taken care of or acquired all those things over a long period of time and then all of a sudden you have to do it all at once. So having gone though this, I have some suggestions for those about to go through it. Some may work for you, some not.

Get your personal life in order

This is the top priority. That means find a place to live as quickly as possible and buy or at least get a minimal wardrobe and don’t fret about it. It’s not a fashion statement; it’s merely covering your nakedness. It’s strange to say but being a fire victim is a job, not one that anyone takes on voluntarily but nevertheless a job. It takes time and you’re constantly doing annoying things because you’re constantly distracted. You forget to charge the cell phone, or leave your brief case all over the place, and then get into little fender benders because you’re rushing to be someplace.

Get yourself a support network going as quickly as you can. You’ll need those friends and family to help you through the tough times. Let people help you. That’s tougher than it sounds. Most of us in Malibu are very self-reliant and can take care of ourselves, except after a fire you really can’t. Most of us have been on the giving end and not on the receiving end and it takes some adjustment to let people do things for you.

Get together with the other people who were burned out and organize

Over the next year or two you’re going to be dealing with things with which you have little experience, so it helps enormously to join together with others who were burned out and meet regularly and share information and support. We formed a group after the 1993 fire that we called “Operation Recovery” and met regularly every week at Duke’s Malibu Restaurant. It was part information sharing and part group therapy.

There are many topics about which most of you know very little now, but which you will need to know. I can assure you, you will be quite knowledgeable before you’re through.

Fire Insurance: There are all sorts of fire insurance policies, with different coverages, different exemptions, housing allowances and different clauses like guaranteed replacement and code upgrades. Fire insurance policies are complicated and need interpretation, and different adjusters will give you all sorts of different and often contradictory information about what’s covered. I don’t care how long you’ve been with Old Reliable Insurance Company, be very clear about one thing. Once you file a claim, you are the enemy. That claims adjuster is there to protect the company, not you. Your broker, unless he’s a real heavy hitter with the insurance company, can’t do much for you either. He’s on the sales end and the claims department is made up of an entirely different group who all think that you’re trying to rip off the company. You’re probably going to need a lawyer who does insurance work or perhaps a public adjuster who represent claimants. That’s one of the things the group can do, invite resource people in to speak to you as a group. Carriers are also a great deal more reasonable when they know policyholders are talking to each other.

Dealing with the government: In this case there are several governments. Some of you are in the city of Malibu and many more in the County of Los Angeles and most within the coastal zone, which means the California Coastal Commission. On a whole, they will try to help; however, you will quickly discover there are a great deal more governments within those groups. Planning has a different agenda than the Fire Department; Building and Safety is different than the others. They all have their own rules and they frequently clash and contradict each other. They have different priorities and they frequently have overlapping jurisdiction and can often make life difficult.

You’re going to need allies and it helps to cultivate your politicians. You’re going to need them, sometimes as tiebreakers when agencies are in conflict.

Lastly, take your time: Right after the 1993 fire, burned-out lots were going very cheap. Within months a normal market returned and the prices for the lots started to rise. There are very few things that have to be decided right away. Give yourself a breather. If you’re going to rebuild, understand that the process of rebuilding is slow, often tortuous and takes two or three years. We burned out on Nov. 3, 1993 and moved into our new house in March 1996. I don’t think we were atypical, so take your time. This entire process is a marathon and not a sprint and you have to emotionally gear yourself for that.

We at The Malibu Times will try to help. We have resurrected the Operation Recovery page on the home page. We will update it online daily and in print weekly. Use us to communicate with each other. Send us information about your meetings, your problems and needs. We’ll do our best to point you in the right direction.

Contact us at The Malibu Times:

Editor Laura Tate laura@malibutimes.com, 310.456.5507, Ext. 109

Assistant Editor Jonathan Friedman jf@malibutimes.com, Ext. 105

Fax us at 310.456.8986

Most of all, good luck, and be secure in the knowledge that in time this will pass and life will return to normalcy.