A Fire Victim Who Refused to Return


FirestormLOGOBy Sean Orfila, Special to the Independent

Venola Imrie’s journey to Laguna Beach was a familiar story for those moving here during the 1950s. Her husband Watson Imrie, an avid photographer, aspired to live closer to photographer William Mortensen, who operated a studio and school teaching his unique style of portraiture. In 1953, the couple decided to retire early and moved to Laguna Beach from the Imperial Valley.

3 vacant 1040 skyline Lona.HmNotRebuilt.Pic.2.2013
The still vacant lot on Skyline Drive serves as an extra parking space for neighbors. Photo by Loreen Berlin.

By 1958, the couple had built a quaint, single story home on a small lot at 1040 Skyline Dr. Years passed, memories were made, and Ms. Imrie came to love living in Laguna Beach. After her husband died, she continued to live in her home, keeping a daily routine of walking to town for groceries and riding the bus home. “She was one feisty, strong woman,” recalled her daughter, Helen Paxson, now 83, who lives in Los Angeles. “The bus driver would carry her groceries to the door for her.”

On the tragic morning of October 27, 1993, Ms. Imrie’s world would change. She was 89.

Paxson phoned her mother that morning, worried about the news of a wildfire burning behind Emerald Bay. Her mother said she was fine and was sitting outside in her sandals, watching the fire behind Emerald Bay. The phone would soon become disconnected.

Soon Ms. Imrie’s neighbors were warning her that the fire had jumped Laguna Canyon Road. They arranged a car for her to help her evacuate. The fire was moving quickly up the hill behind Skyline, and the only thing her mother managed to grab from the house was the family silver. “They all expected to be back in the neighborhood by 6 p.m.,” recalled Paxson.

The fire consumed the house and 199 others in the Mystic Hills neighborhood that day. When they were finally let back into the neighborhood that weekend, a representative for their insurer was there to meet them.

“Everybody else came out smelling like a rose,” said Paxson. “If I would had only had the knowledge that the rest of the street had… there was some kind of an insurance person that wanted to sign up everybody. They would fight for them to get coverage.” But Ms. Imrie’s insurance company, Safeco, sent an agent out to meet her that day and Paxson, who was assisting her 89-year-old mother, politely declined the man’s services.

According to Paxson, her mother’s insurer had just one claim in Laguna Beach that day — 1040 Skyline Drive. “They were Johnny on the spot,” she recalled. “They wanted me down there as soon as possible.”

Paxson said she stood with the insurer’s representative for three hours and described in exacting detail the memories of her mother’s house. “Unfortunately I have a fantastic memory,” said Paxson. “I was describing everything.”

Helen Paxson with the only memento she has from her mother’s Skyline Drive home.  Photo by Sean Orfila.
Helen Paxson with the only memento she has from her mother’s Skyline Drive home. Photo by Sean Orfila.

Six weeks later, the architect hired by the insurer drew up plans. “It was it! It was perfect. It was the house!” said Paxson. “I had described it perfectly.” But the details Paxson recalled would eventually work against her.

Safeco Insurance agreed to rebuild the house, but the bid was so low that it confounded two of Paxson’s contractor friends.

Other fire victims, who lost modest, one-story homes, were rebuilding larger multi-level houses. “These mansions were going up on either side and it didn’t make sense to build that same house,” she said.

Paxson said her policy only covered rebuilding the house as it was. “They didn’t just pay the cost of what the house was outright, but forced you to rebuild,” said Paxson.

Glenn Greenberg, a spokesman for Liberty Mutual, which acquired Safeco in 2008, declined to comment on what was paid on the claim at 1040 Skyline Dr. In an email asking about the rebuilding of larger houses, Greenberg said the increase in land value is not used in the determination of a home’s replacement cost. He also noted that residents who built larger homes likely would have done so by paying the difference in cost themselves.

After the devastation, Paxson moved her mother into a nearby retirement community while the lot at 1040 Skyline Drive remained empty, a ghostly foundation the only reminder of what was once a vibrant single story house. City records show that just four other lots burned out the in ’93 fire remain vacant, said zoning administrator Liane Schuller.

“At that age you don’t rebuild a life,” said Paxson referring to her mother, “to lose everything, all her memories, and just escape with not even clothes… that was hard.”


Sean Orfila is a Laguna Beach resident.




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