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Hansen: Not letting fire shape your life

If former Laguna Beach Mayor Bob Gentry had it to do over again, with the firestorm whipping around his Mystic Hills house 20 years ago, he would not change anything.

He would still grab the dog and two cats, the family's 100-year-old heirloom silver and his partner's box of memorabilia.

He didn't think of himself. He didn't worry about other possessions.

"I didn't think of any material things except those two boxes because I knew everything else was just things," Gentry said.

Now living in Hawaii, Gentry said the fire is still a vivid memory because it was so powerful and unpredictable. It ended up burning his entire neighborhood and more than 400 homes across the city.

As the associate dean of students at UC Irvine, Gentry was at his campus office when he got the call from then City Manager Ken Frank, who told him, "You better get down here."

When Gentry arrived at the Top of the World headquarters, the Santa Ana winds had shifted and the fire had jumped Laguna Canyon Road from the north.

"The wind changed and the fire started roaring into Mystic Hills from across the canyon. We all looked at each other and said, 'We have to get out of here,'" Gentry said.

By the time Gentry arrived at his house halfway down the hill, he knew he did not have much time.

"I was frightened, I was nervous. I hadn't faced this kind of situation before," he said. "And when I left my home, the fire had come to the neighbor's house across the street. So it was totally imminent.

"And it was hot. As I was driving down the hill, there were embers that were hitting my car. In fact, one of them cracked my windshield."

Gentry lost two homes in the fire, his own and a nearby rental.

Despite the total loss, to this day he remains sanguine about the experience. He would not wish it on anyone, but he has tried to make the best of it.

He realized that memories can be reshaped by those around us.

"Things like photographs of our family and history and so forth, they all came back to us from people who had been at similar events," he said. "So it was like, oh that's interesting, it's a new perspective of that event we went to."

In considering the replacement of things, he realized, too, that he did not need as much stuff. Life was lighter and more meaningful with just a few quality choices.

"Besides getting all new clothes, all new dishes, all new furniture, all new house, all new, all new, all new. You know? It may be weird but both Dennis and I looked at it like it was just an experience in life that was more materially oriented than anything else."

And friends responded in kind, filling immediate needs.

"This was late October. Christmas was right around the corner. But all the Christmas tree ornaments were gone. People kept asking me, 'What do you need?' I said you know what we need? We need Christmas tree ornaments.

"So we got all these wonderful, specialized Christmas tree ornaments from all over the country. It was just wonderful."

Not everyone adapted. Some families encountered particularly tough times in the aftermath, beyond the loss of a house.

"Several couples in the neighborhood faced divorce because of it," Gentry said. "I remember one lady in the neighborhood. We were talking in the street many, many weeks after the fire. She said to both of us in kind of teary tones, 'I lost my wedding dress.' And Dennis looked at her and said, 'How many times were you gonna wear it, honey?'

"Which was probably a little caustic but it made the point."

Gentry and his partner lost all of their art but decided to accumulate in its place only Laguna artwork.

"We had a wonderful time replacing the art pieces that we lost. We put together a wonderful mini-collection that was meaningful to us. Even an artist did some paintings of the fire from offshore in a kind of contemporary look, which I thought was wonderful. It was a whole new life."

Your house is destroyed by a fire, but you rebuild and christen it with a painting of the fire.

You are not only forgiving the fire but allowing it to hold a place in your home. Framed, it's the only way you can contain it.

You control it now because you never let it control you.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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