Residents return to fire zone: ‘We have no home’
Residents find that little survived in the path of the fire in neighborhoods in Yorba Linda and Anaheim Hills.
ANAHEIM HILLS Claudia Ybarra knelt on the sooty ground outside her apartment, surrounded by a few plastic bags of clothes, some grimy file folders and a vacuum cleaner. That’s what she owns now.
Next door, a neighbor crunched through the charcoal rubble and broken glass of his apartment, shaking his head. Another neighbor walked past and called out, "Well, good luck. I lost everything." The pastor from a nearby church approached and offered her pizza.
In the hillside neighborhoods of Yorba Linda and Anaheim Hills, apartment dwellers and mansion owners came home Sunday to find themselves in the same place. Their homes were gone, and their belongings had been reduced to the few odd items that firefighters had pulled from the smoke and wreckage.
A sooty wedding picture. An autographed baseball. A vacuum cleaner.
""I’m going to miss just sitting on the couch and watching TV," Ybarra, 34, said as she loaded her car with the bags and boxes that firefighters had salvaged from her apartment. "Now you’re like…"
She paused. "We have no home. You take things for granted."
Miles away, on a ridge-top neighborhood in Yorba Linda, firefighters were still spraying foam on a smoking garage down the street when Hanna Haroutounian arrived at her house. She put her hand over her eyes and sobbed as she walked up the front walk, stepping over broken roof tiles and under a piece of gutter that had peeled away from the roof.
Her family had lived in the big home on Big Horn Mountain Way for nine years. They had remodeled last year. Now her footsteps crunched as she made her way over blackened timbers into the front entry that had collapsed with part of the roof.
"This is our house," she said, "our sanctuary."
The neighborhood of spacious homes and tidy lawns had been smothered with smoke and lit with fire on Saturday night. At least 16 homes burned there when a wildfire front ripped up a nearby hillside.
On Sunday, residents returned to find firefighters still hosing down hot spots and smoke still curling above some destroyed homes. Those who were fortunate offered beds and support to those who were not.
"It’s hard to stay composed when you see a whole family come home and just break down," said Tyler Toomey, 19, who had spent the night keeping watch over his family’s home as embers streamed from burning houses nearby.
Down the street, Vas Arora drew his family to him as he stood in the brick archway of his home. It was almost all that was left.
The blackened wreckage behind the door: That was his family’s pictures and videos, his wife’s wedding dress – "Things that you save for the rest of your life."
"I don’t know what to call it when it feels like you can’t breathe," said Arova, 67, a retired engineer originally from India. "But that’s what it feels like."
"I came to this country with zero dollars in my pocket," he added. "We built this. We’ll build over again."
At the Cascade Apartments in Anaheim Hills, Rian Thomas, 27, returned to the second-floor apartment that she and her new husband had moved into a few months ago. It had ceased to exist, and she was thinking about her husband’s pocket watch lying somewhere in the rubble.
She had given it to him as a gift, and he had worn it in their wedding. It was engraved with the words from a favorite song: "We will carry on."
"It’s gone," she said as she watched a firefighter pick through the wreckage of her apartment. "There’s nothing we can do. We’ve just got to move on. I’m in disbelief.
"I mean, that was my room, right there. He’s walking in my room."
A few buildings down, a 33-year-old man named Jason, who said he was uncomfortable giving out his last name, made his way through an apartment littered with singed baseball cards – the remnants of his collection. Wires and soggy scraps of insulation hung from the ceiling.
He found a prized autographed baseball and took it outside. He found his collection of autographed baseball bats – all of them carbonized black.
"It’s heartbreaking," he said. "I got nothing left. My wallet, it burned. I got nowhere to go, you know?"
He shook his head. "We got nothing. Absolutely nothing, man. Nada."
"Why?? They saved my damned house!"
Picking Through What’s Left
Putting Out a Spot Fire
Resting On A Lawn
No Parking Zone
Setting A Backfire
Trying To Save The House On The Right
Confused And Scared Rabbit
Helicopter Water Drop
All By Himself
DC-10 Dropping Fire Retardent
Don’t Live Here!
Steve Lopez, L A Times Columist
It’s 90 degrees in November, the full glory and perennial curse of Southern California on fierce display. Devil winds, hill-hopping infernos, smoked mansions, torched trailers, barren freeways, and brilliant sunsets lingering in low-hanging canopies of burnt dreams.
Are we all crazy? Don’t live here, says the wind, the trembling earth, the parched land whose natural inclination is to explode in flame every year about now.
But we do.
Don’t build near the kindling, say the voices of common sense.
But we do, for all the wrong reasons and all the known glories. Our winter snowfall is flakes of ash and flame retardant falling on bougainvillea, so it could be worse.
At least the last big quake was a fake — a Thursday run-through to test our preparedness. Followed immediately, of course, by a genuine, rip-roaring disaster, the kind of astonishing immolation that allows folks across the nation to feel smug despite their black ice and frozen rain.
I could have gone in any direction to find fire victims Sunday. With flames roaring through Montecito, Sylmar, Corona, Anaheim Hills, Yorba Linda, Diamond Bar and elsewhere, thousands of people had fled. Millionaires on the move, trailer park residents out the door in pajamas.
"It has been a harrowing last 2 days," said an e-mail from a Montecito woman named Katherine, sent to loved ones informing them the family had lost six of its seven homes in the Tea fire.
"The fire was so intense that there was no time for anyone to save belongings. My father and stepmother did not even have time to get their wallet — let alone rescue the pets! It is literally starting over with nothing but the clothes on their backs."
My friend Mark Morocco, an ER doctor, forwarded me a message from one of his colleagues at Olive View Medical Center, which lost all power Saturday night and was partially evacuated.
"I saw . . . nurses rush into the ER with newborns carried in a kangaroo-like pouch for transport out. . . . It took a team of 8 to carry [one] patient on a stretcher down flights of stairs through 4 floors . . . with just our flashlights for visualization. She made it to Huntington hospital safely."
Across Southern California, tens of thousands made it out safely, helicopters buzzed, hundreds of firefighters risked their lives to protect what was left behind, the Red Cross mobilized like the civilian army that it is, gyms full of cots and blankets appearing out of nowhere.
Saturday night I drove to Sylmar, with firestorms at 11 o’clock and 3 o’clock, rolling over the hills like blazing comets. At the Sylmar High evacuation center, I found residents of the Oakridge trailer park, where more than 500 of the 600 homes were lost.
I saw a woman picking through clothes piled on the bleachers of the Sylmar High gymnasium. She was holding them up for size and then folding them neatly into a cardboard box.
Lee Chandler had her work credentials on a string around her neck. She’s a Providence Hospital RN and was with her pal and roommate, Ray Bloss, a retired Army medic who now works as a physician’s assistant out of West Hills hospital.
Did they live at Oakridge? I asked.
He shook his head. Across the gym was a blackboard with several dozen addresses on it, the only known trailers that survived the fire. The one Bloss and Chandler rented was not on the list. When I asked what they were able to save, Bloss pointed to his shoes.
"That’s about it," he said
They had been high school sweethearts 30 years ago in Pennsylvania. But after a misunderstanding over a date that Bloss didn’t show up for, they split, moved to different states, got into medicine unbeknownst to each other, married and had children.
Four years ago, divorced and wondering what ever happened to Chandler, Bloss looked her up on Classmates.com and discovered that she too had been lured west by weather and opportunity. He was living in San Diego by then, having vowed never to shovel snow again in his life. Chandler was living in Los Angeles, where she was in the midst of a divorce.
The timing wasn’t perfect for a romance, but a close friendship blossomed. Bloss moved to Los Angeles and they hooked up with other friends and rented a house in Granada Hills. But the neighborhood was a little dicey, so in July, they jumped when a friend moved out of state and offered to rent them her trailer in Sylmar’s Oakridge Mobile Home Park.
"It was wonderful," Bloss said. The homes were owned by good, friendly people who were longtime residents. They kept their places up and the streets were lined with mature trees.
"You could hear the coyotes at night, and there were hiking trails you could go into for nice strolls. It felt very safe and very peaceful," said Chandler, whose 12-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son swam in the community pool and made new friends.
Bloss was happier than he’d been in years, and loved being so close to mountain, sea and desert, and to so many cultural attractions.
Chandler and Bloss were thinking of buying the trailer together. The roommate arrangement worked for both of them, they said, and Bloss loved being around Chandler’s children, who he said made him feel young again. Sure, there was always the threat of fire, but the owner wanted just $150,000 — California living on the cheap.
Then came Friday night. Bloss woke to the smell of smoke and looked outside. Seeing an orange glow over the hill, he hurried to Chandler’s bedroom to roust her and then her son (the daughter was with friends). Chandler grabbed up some photos and a few items of clothing. Bloss got their computers and they sped away just ahead of the flames.
Saturday afternoon in the Sylmar High gym, when Bloss saw that their address was not on the blackboard, he wept.
"Maybe there’s a mistake," Chandler said, telling me she couldn’t begin to think about where she might live until she sees for herself that the trailer is gone.
When I checked in with her Sunday night, there was cause for hope. She’d driven out to the site earlier in the day. A policeman wouldn’t let her in, but he said a home matching the description of hers was still standing.
When or whether they’ll ever get back into the park remains uncertain. For the time being, they’re staying with friends. It could have been worse, Bloss said, if they owned the home.
Bloss said something in Korean that he’d picked up during his Army days.
"It basically means, ‘That’s the way things go.’ In the Army, there are many times when things go badly and you just say, ‘Stuff happens.’ You suck it up and you drive on."
Stuff happens, indeed.
The Earth shakes. The fires rage. The population expands.
And the sunsets are brilliant, especially this time of year.
Take care my friends and please don’t forget the people here who have lost everything.