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Homeowners on Calif. hills undeterred by deadly mudslides

LOS ANGELES -- John and Ruby Haynal could do nothing to stop a wildfire 15 years ago that turned their hillside home high above the freeways and urban clatter into scorched rubble.

The other day, the retired couple stood outside the glass-and-stucco house they built on the same spot, staring at a mudslide that ripped open the foundation of a four-story mansion just above them and buried cars and a swimming pool.

As piping hissed within the mansion's exposed interior and nearby residents evacuated damaged homes, the Haynals didn't flinch.

If they ever leave their beloved hillside outside Los Angeles, it will be for the convenience of a smaller home, not worry over mudslides and wildfires. They are among many Californians determined to cling to their slice of hilltop splendor despite the constant threat of natural disasters.

"It's the natural setting," John Haynal said, squinting as he canvassed the chaparral clinging to the hills, framed by the first blue sky Southern California had seen after five days of record rainfall. "It's because of the property."

The recent lethal storms in the region washed away houses or churned them into splinters in mountains of sliding muck. The weather was the latest reminder of the precarious balance of life in the hills.

The most tragic example of the unpredictability of nature occurred 70 miles northwest of Los Angeles, in the drowsy seaside community of La Conchita. A roiling slough of mud killed 10 and buried homes.

Homeowners who loved the town's seclusion and off-the-grid atmosphere knew the threat. The town was built on land cleared by the Southern Pacific Railroad after a slide nearly a century ago killed four people. Just a decade ago, a mudslide destroyed nine homes.

Ventura County Sheriff Bob Brooks said the area will always be "geologically hazardous" and warned residents against returning to the town because of the danger of another collapse.

"If you want to live in this kind of community, you're going to have these obstacles," said La Conchita resident Bob Voigt, 62, whose home was nearly hit by the slide. "I lived in Malibu for 25 years, and I had fire on the property seven times."

"We are not afraid to stay in La Conchita," added 24-year resident Jack Falk, 48. "We are in a beautiful part of the world, and we desire to live nowhere else."

Numerous lofty or remote addresses that offer serenity, privacy, or status are at once embraced and threatened by California's natural beauty. "There are a lot of gloriously beautiful spots. But when the weather turns crummy, they can exact a stiff price," said Jack Kyser, chief economist of Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. "Common sense says . . . it's better to live on flat land, but people make these trade-offs."

The hillside homes spread around Los Angeles -- sometimes built on lots as steep as ski slopes -- also make a statement about the prevailing psyche of the area.

"You might argue that people in Southern California are somewhat prone to take risks. Building a house up there is a more extreme version of a risk culture," said David Halle, director of the LeRoy Neiman Center for the Study of American Society and Culture at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"It's a bit of a puzzle. People don't do that kind of thing in New York."

Many residents take the risk in stride, with a dose of fatalism.

"If it happens, it happens," says John Hall, who lives next to a Los Angeles home crushed in a mudslide last week. If another slide comes, "I hope I get a headstart running down the hill."

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