Corral Canyon still recovering, rebuilding

The is the second story in a three-part series on the effects of the Corral Canyon Fire of 1997 on homeowners.

By Oscar Antonino / Special to The Malibu Times

Three years have passed since the early morning firestorm on Nov. 24, 2007 raged through four canyons in Malibu. Within hours the fire had been mostly contained, but not until after it had destroyed 53 homes.

Today, a drive through these canyons-Corral, Escondido, Latigo, and Solstice-reveals that although it took only a few hours for these homes to be destroyed, it has taken the homeowners much longer to rebuild, if at all.

Beverly Taki, creator of Corral Canyon’s Operation Recovery, helped organize neighbors after the fire to assist one another in the recovery and rebuilding process.

“At least 15 haven’t been rebuilt,” she said. “Now we’re on three years and there are still homes that haven’t been touched.”

Corral Canyon resident Lee O’Keefe-Hardy, who lost four cats and more than 30 years of memorabilia, including letters from her father when he was imprisoned in a German POW camp and years of artwork, has experienced tremendous difficulties with the rebuilding of her home.

“The insurance money did not cover the actual cost of replacing a home and the permitting process and regulations are designed to crush the dreams of building anything inspirational,” she said.

Like many others who lost their homes in the fire, her home is still under construction. “The building department has a lot of requirements that don’t make a lot of sense,” she said. “They are famous for putting roadblocks in front of people.”

Taki said the insurance that most of the victims in Corral Canyon had did not cover housing nor permit upgrades.

The insurance that most homeowners carried at that time was offered under what is known as the California FAIR Plan. The FAIR Plan is an association of insurance providers that offers coverage to homeowners in high-risk incidence areas as a last resort, when traditional providers have denied them coverage.

At that time, alternative living expenses due to loss of use were not covered separately. Policyholders were able to use up to 10 percent of the total insured value to pay for housing, but it was deducted from the available funds of the dwelling coverage.

Bart Baker, insurance broker for Farmers Insurance, said that it forced people to make some tough decisions about what to spend the money on.

“A lot of people had to choose between fixing their homes and paying the rent,” he said.

Taki’s Operation Recovery was designed to assist residents through some of these ordeals.

“We had families with two and three kids living in one-bedroom guesthouses,” she said.

By December 2007, Operation Recovery was conducting regular meetings, featuring guests such as government officials, consultants and certified public accountants.

“The blessing about the fire is that we learned a lot,” she said.

One thing homeowners learned, Taki said, is to look at their policies annually and adjust them according to the home’s current market value. She said if the home goes up in value, the policy should be increased as well. “Most of us don’t like to pay more for insurance than we have to, but the people who had good insurance built faster, and they recovered emotionally faster,” she said.

Insurance claims were only some of the challenges the fire victims had to deal with. Permits and building code upgrades presented their own sets of complications. Taki said most people had frustrations with the insurance adjusters, but that some of the other hurdles had to do with old septic systems, newer and stricter housing codes, improper surveys and hefty permitting fees.

The many complications associated with the rebuilding process made it so the community was in disrepair for the past three years.

“It affected our property values,” Taki said. “Nobody really wanted to buy here for two years. It was still looking too haggard.”

She explained that after the 1993 Malibu fires, those who lost their homes had the good fortune of rebuilding during a favorable housing market, earning them profits in the millions of dollars.

“That didn’t happen in this fire,” she said. “Nobody has sold a fire-rebuilt home yet.”

Taki is optimistic that for most of the homeowners the worst is now behind them.

“The good news is that three years later we do have prosperity in the canyon,” she said. “The people still live here and want to live here.”

She also believes the property values are on the rise.

“They went down for awhile, but now I think they’re on their way up,” she said. “Because now we do have these rebuilds and we don’t have any sign of a fire here. The green is back.”

The FAIR Plan has also undergone changes since the time when these claims were filed. Pete Moraga, spokesperson for the Insurance Information Network of California, explained that the policy went through a major overhaul after a backlash from policyholders about the limits to their coverage.

“There are a lot more options now,” he said.

The new FAIR Plan was created in November of 2009. It offers line items that can be purchased in addition to the dwelling coverage. One of these line items covers alternative living expenses due to loss of use of the dwelling, and another is for ordinance coverage for building code upgrades.

Next week The Malibu Times will feature an article about Corral Canyon’s fight for justice in the courts, as well as the steps that are being taken to protect residents and visitors from future wildfires.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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