State of flux is norm for fire survivor

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Pauline Freeland, a Pepperdine University employee, at her Malibu Bowl home. While not completely destroyed, the home is uninhabitable. Photo by Vicky Shere / TMT

Family, friends and assistant groups help Pauline Freeland regroup and prepare to rebuild. One bright note is finding her cat that was saved by firefighters.

By Vicky Shere / Special to the Malibu Times

Pauline Freeland is a vagabond.

She’s been staying with friends since November’s Corral Canyon fire; she was with her son and daughter-in-law Christmas Eve, and with her daughter’s family Christmas Day.

She spent her 67th birthday, New Year’s Day, at Morro Bay. Starting Jan. 5, Freeland will be renting a room in Monte Nido, an easy commute to her job at Pepperdine University.

“Not being able to go home is really hard,” Freeland said during a visit to her property. “I miss cooking my own food, relaxing and being on my own. My whole routine is off.”

Her Fairside Road home was one of 33 single-family houses damaged in the Nov. 24 blaze that burned nearly 5,000 acres and destroyed 53 homes. After demolishing Freeland’s garage, the flames destroyed the electrical and plumbing connections of the two-story, three-bedroom house, and firefighters had to raze its deck.

Freeland has lived in the Malibu Bowl home for 30 years. She and her former husband, Ken, and their children came to Malibu from Cerritos and lived in a mobile home while the house was built.

“There was hardly anybody up there,” Freeland recalled. “You could walk around the neighborhood at midnight and see horses, rabbits and dogs.”

Freeland awakened to the 3:30 a.m. blaze when her neighbor, Dianne O’Rourke, called. Although Freeland packed her car and looked for her cat, she did not leave right away. “I was in a state of denial,” Freeland says. “I thought nothing would happen.”

Three hours later, when she saw embers close to her house, her adrenaline kicked in and she left. She called Ken from Ralphs at the Malibu Colony Shopping Plaza and he came from North Hollywood to watch the news with her at Coogie’s.

Their daughter-in-law, Jill, called to tell them that the house had been damaged, not destroyed.

Freeland, a trail runner with the New Basin Blues running club and Santa Barbara Athletic Association, then called her running partner, Carrie Baltin, who offered her home as temporary living quarters.

The next day, Freeland, her son Kenneth, who came from Santa Barbara, and her daughter, Cyndee, who came from Newbury Park, went back to the Malibu Bowl home to look for Freeland’s cat, Stella, but couldn’t find her.

Freeland didn’t know firefighters had saved Stella by boxing her in with a blanket near the refrigerator.

“I was devastated, thinking I lost her,” Freeland said. “I’ve had her for 13 years. I went to the house for nine days looking for her. Finally, I smelled wet fur and heard her. It was such a relief to know she was alive.”

Freeland took Stella to Malibu Animal Hospital, where there was more good news: Stella had only suffered a minor upper respiratory infection and the hospital only charged Freeland $30 for medicine, donating veterinarian time worth hundreds of dollars.

“Everyone was so kind,” Freeland said. “They gave Stella a bath and Dr. Victor [Erenberg] gave her an antibiotic and vitamin C.”

Others have been equally kind, Freeland said.

While waiting to hear from her insurance adjuster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Small Business Administration about financial compensation, Freeland has gotten information and support from GMDRP, the Greater Malibu Area Disaster Recovery Project.

Jacqui Goldman Spiros, a GMDRP volunteer, has e-mailed recovery information and application forms for GMDRP funds. The organization is also arranging regular group support meetings. “It’s unbelievable the fire ever happened,” Freeland said. “Every morning I’m kind of lost.”

Spiros is also arranging for storage of donated items in a bin at the Malibu High School parking lot. Brent Balin, the husband of Freeland’s running partner, Carrie, has offered to donate shelves for the storage bin, Freeland said.

At one GMDRP meeting, Margo Neal, a survivor of the 1993 fire, gave her telephone number to current victims.

Freeland’s boss at Pepperdine’s Drescher Campus Library, James Wiser, has let Freeland take time from her public services supervisor duties to take care of rebuilding her home.

“I just take one day at a time,” Freeland said. “When I’m outside in nature or with friends, I’m okay, I try to live in the present. At other times, I don’t know where I’m going to be and I have crying jags.”

Freeland is waiting for an insurance adjuster to tell her the amount of the settlement. Insured under the California FAIR plan, Freeland worries she doesn’t have enough personal property coverage. She’s been told she can appeal the amount of the settlement. If she’s satisfied with the settlement, she then has to look for a general contractor.

Although friends have suggested she sell her one-acre property, she has decided to rebuild. “I want to do what I can to make the house better. The worst part is that I feel so insecure, I can’t totally relax.”

Another stress point for Freeland is having a home for Stella. It’s not easy for cats to settle into a new home, and they become stressed if they are forced to move.

Freeland tries to remain hopeful that she’ll feel better.

“I just want to feel things are back to normal,” Freeland said. “I’m kind of a homebody. It’s important for me and Stella to come home.”