Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Freeway Complex Fire (be warned: very lengthy)

We have been through a lot, to say the least, in the past few days. Time-wise it feels like a blur & feels much longer than it really has been. I still feel like I am in shock as I sit here now & write this. But I feel writing is very therapeutic (at least for me) so I thought perhaps it would help me collect my thoughts & move forward.

For much of last week we had really strong & hot winds blowing through our community. This does happen from time to time, & although it seems like strange weather to me, I have gotten used to it after living here for the past 3 years, as it does happen periodically, though not very often. (More often we get normal temperature winds from time to time, VERY strong at times, & we ALWAYS at least have a nice gentle breeze blowing through here, it's one of the things I love most about living here.) I also wanted to add that I also love living here because it is such a nice community—people know each other, help each other, etc. & it was this old-fashioned goodness that you find around here that was also evident during the fires. Many men in the neighborhood stuck around & fought on their own helping out the firemen.

So Saturday morning I got up & went to work. I leave around 6:30 am. Hubby left a little while after me to go to work. At the times we left the wind was still strong (at least 50-60 mph) & hot, but it had been for a few days & all appeared totally normal & quiet & peaceful. Around 9:20 a co-worker of mine who lives up the street from me called me to tell me she had left work to head home, that there was a HUGE fire in our community. I called hubby, he had just gotten a call from his mom (who lives across the street from us) & he had called the kids to make sure they got out. Hubby told me to call my cousin (who also lives across the street from us), that he was told the house next to her was on fire & her house appeared to be burning too. I tried to call my cousin several times, but there was no answer on her cell phone. I kept calling hubby back, he told me to stay at work, but I could no longer focus on anything & knew I wasn't safe to my patients. I turned on the news on TV at work, but all they were talking about was the huge Sylmar fire. Briefly they interrupted to say they had word of a "Corona Fire" at the 91 & 71, but that they had no details on it at all, only that it existed, they had a helicopter shot of all the smoke & then they quickly went back to the Sylmar fire. I left work & avoided the 71 (on hubby's advice, they were closing all freeways next to the fire) & took the 15 instead & headed to hubby's business in Riverside.

My step-kids escaped with little time to spare, as did everyone I have spoken to who was here at the time of the fire. My step-daughter normally works on Saturdays, leaving my step-son home alone. But on this Saturday my step-daughter had taken off work (thank God she was there & could drive my step-son out, otherwise he may have been stuck, although I am sure my bro in law would have gotten him) & was going to spend the day packing for a month long trip to Puerto Rico, she was leaving the next day. She says she woke up, she smelled smoke, but there's frequently fires in the Cleveland National Forest (just across the 91 from us), so we smell smoke quite often here to be honest, it's usually very small fires that are put out quickly, but the smoke lingers for a while. (I will say that whenever I do smell I always investigate to the best of my ability, just to make sure we are safe, I never just assume we are, but every time in the past this has happened we have been totally safe) So she was up for a few minutes & as she walked into the living room she noticed the blinds facing East were all lit up orange. She went to open it & saw raging fire outside. She went to wake my step-son & said he was sitting up in bed staring at his blinds (also facing East), as if in shock. She started yelling at him, telling him they had to leave immediately. They left, in their pajamas, Karla grabbed her purse & cell phone & nothing else. Vincent grabbed his backpack. As they ran out to the car the smoke was so thick they could barely see & fire embers were flying everywhere. The heat was unbelievably intense. Her boyfriend & his friend came to get our dogs just as she pulled away, as she couldn't fit them in her car. In the few moments they were here they said the fire exploded to even worse, they couldn't breathe at all & felt the hairs on their arms burning. A car in the garage across the street blew up just as they were pulling away as fast as they could. They said the noise & vibration of it was unreal. They felt like they were in a movie, totally surreal.

My brother in law's back yard faces the canyon. He smelled smoke & looked out & saw it, but it was pretty far away. He went out with a hose to start hosing down his yard & house & he said embers were hitting his feet. He turned to get a pair of shoes, only to turn around again & have the fire totally upon his yard. It was HUGE. He knew there was no fighting this with a hose. He told his mother & daughter they had to leave NOW. They scrambled to get out, barely able to see in all the smoke. As they made it to the car in the driveway his daughter asked for her guinea pig, in the garage. He tried to go in but knew the fire was too far advanced. They left, barely out in time, literally. He went & parked somewhere away from the smoke & heat & ran back to try once more to get the guinea pig, but it was then he saw his house was totally engulfed in flames. He looked to our house & saw one of our palm trees on fire. When he called hubby & told him that & then hubby called me, we both knew our house was gone. I was in tears to be honest. Hubby was headed to my step-daughter's boyfriend's work (right up the street from our community) to get the dogs. The kids had gone there too. He tried to get in the community but could not (they were only allowing people to walk in at this point, so that fire trucks could move around freely). My brother in law realized later that part of the interior of the car he was driving (which was parked in his driveway) was melted & fire damaged, that's how hot it was.

My cousin said she woke up & saw her palm trees outside burning. They quickly got up & fled the house with their daughter & dog.

As I drove to hubby's work I called my family. My brother turned the news on & was giving me updates on what he was seeing. He could clearly see my brother in law's house & a few others surrounding us. My co-worker had parked up the road outside the community & ran inside (her husband still inside adamantly hosing his back yard down). Their house did not burn, but the whole back yard is torched. My co-worker kept calling me with updates, she finally told me my house was not burning as of yet. I kept thinking maybe she wasn't sure which house was mine. My brother also saw my house on the news & said from what he could see it wasn't burning. Finally it appeared that the fire in Green River was under control & had moved on to Yorba Linda. By then I was at hubby's work & was able to pull up the news on computers there. But they never returned to Green River at that point.

Hubby & I stayed at his work all day. We could see the huge cloud of smoke in the distance towards our home. My step daughter told us she snuck back in (on foot) after it had been contained. She said our house had not burned, she was going to try to pack, but the house was still so smokey that she couldn't breathe & all the smoke alarms continued to ring constantly. So she had to leave. She stayed in the community for a little while taking photos of the area. There were people everywhere looking she said. Finally the police demanded a mandatory evacuation & all had to leave the community. They even went door to door demanding mandatory evacuation.

It was a very long day to say the least. And of course the uniform I had grabbed to wear that morning the pants are now way too tight (because of my non-stop growing baby) & I was extremely uncomfortable. Also, my legs were aching beyond belief, I had no idea why (I was just talking about this with my neighbors last night & they have had the exact same thing—must be some sort of physical response to the stress). And my feet were tired, I was just miserable. I wanted to lay down. I also needed to eat. But I really just wanted to go home. We were told that if you had ID to show that you lived in the community you could enter. So hubby & I both drove home. There were still several huge areas of fire blazing in the hills of Chino Hills State Park. At night it stood out clearly & the helicopters & planes had stopped making their drops. The smoke was still very thick. We had to take surface streets as the 91 was now closed, diverting to the 71. We each showed our ID's to the police & were allowed in. The guard shack was closed, no guards in site. Everything was quiet & still. It felt like a ghost town, it was eerie. There were doors & windows & garages standing open & things like that, where you could see that people had fled so fast they weren't thinking. Hubby & I were in separate vehicles. When we approached Feather River Rd there was a roadblock & a police officer was there. Hubby explained that our house was not on Feather River & that it was not burned. He begged for us to have 5 minutes just to retrieve an overnight bag. The officer absolutely would not budge. We finally parked my car there & left together in hubby's vehicle. The officer had given us a phone to call to find out when we were allowed back in. From the road-block we could clearly see (even in the dark) the front of the roof of my brother-in-law's house. It was such a shock to see how bad it was.

We headed to Chino Hills to Wal-Mart to buy a change of clothes for us & the kids (sweats & tshirts) & soap, shampoo, & toothpaste. Then we headed to Chick-fil-a to grab dinner. We were trying desperately to think of where there were hotels (many, many people had offered us rooms to stay in, but we felt uncomfortable & since it's a mandatory evacuation our insurance has to reimburse us anyways). It's amazing how you don't pay attention to hotels near where you live, since you don't plan on using them. On our way back down the 71 (which they were now closing & we just had to turn around & head back up to the 60 & across to the 15) one of our neighbors up the street (on Feather River) called & said he was staying at the Marriot (at Magnolia & the 15). He gave us the phone & we called & reserved rooms for us & my brother in law. The kids met us at the hotel, they had been at my step-daughter's boyfriend's house. It was a long night & hubby & I could not sleep at all (I think we each managed about 1 hour of sleep), though we tried desperately & at least the kids slept well. We had called the phone the officer gave us & it was useless. They insisted that WE were allowed to enter (because our address is Alder Creek, not Feather River), only people living on Feather River & Golden Ridge were restricted. We explained that Alder Creek is a cul-de-sac & you can only get to it by driving on Feather River (& of course we live right on the corner of Alder Creek & Feather River), but the people on the phone didn't seem to understand. Every time we called we went through the same routine, so we decided to just try again in the morning in person.

In the morning we headed downstairs for breakfast. The whole place was full of fire victims & they had the news on the TV down there. The night before we had been told we had until noon to extend our reservations for more days. We were hoping we would only be out of our home for one night, but we weren't sure. So after we ate we went to extend our room reservation only to be told that our room had already been booked & they were sold out. We asked for a manager & were told that circumstances had changed overnight & they did what they had to do. We insisted that they cannot change their policy overnight without at least calling us & giving us the chance to extend our reservation, but they wouldn't budge & didn't care. They did finally tell us our room was free anyways because we were fire victims. We told this to our neighbor, but he said they never gave him his room for free. I can't remember if my brother in law got his room for free or not........ After we had left they called us to say they had a cancellation & offered it to us, so we took it.

So we headed back to our community, everything was open now except the area immediately surrounding our house, where the damage was the worst of the whole community. There were road blocks at the intersections of Golden Ridge & Feather River as well as East Fork & Feather River. We went to park on East Fork & ask if we could just walk to our house. The cop insisted we couldn't, no one was allowed in that area. We explained that our house was not burned & that we didn't live on Feather River, but he didn't care. My co-worker's house was just barely out of the area (& she had stayed secretly throughout the whole mandatory evacuation) so we asked her if we could see her backyard. It was completely torched as well as the whole canyon behind her. We could see the back of my cousin's house from here, but not my brother in law's. When we finally left her yard we saw our neighbor (on the other side of us, up Alder Creek) walking down the street to his house, in the restricted area. The cop was turned away talking to someone. I told hubby let's go for it, we bolted down the street to our house & made it in. It smelled badly of smoke & one of our palms is blackened a bit, but yes, our house is basically fine. We really couldn't take a look at anyone else's houses, there were firemen assessing them & we were worried if they saw us they would tell us to leave. We relaxed (for the first time in 24 hours) & my step-daughter came & snuck in too & finished packing for her trip. After we had gathered overnight bags, etc we felt ok about possibly getting kicked out, so we went out & started looking around. The firemen had been assessing the houses & tagging them based on safety (red, yellow, & green tags). For quite a while we sat on a curb & chatted with a bunch of firemen who were taking a break. We are really amazed at how big their hearts are & how humble they are about it. Most of them had come from up north. Then my step-daughter left & we needed to go eat, but we didn't know if we would be able to get back in. While we were eating my co-worker called & said they were removing all the police lines & the police weren't blocking anymore. We stopped at Home Depot to buy wood, we had talked to the firemen about boarding up my brother in law's doors because they were broken & wouldn't close, they told us it was ok to do that. We also boarded up the front door of the neighbor of the Hicks, across from us. They had axed through her door & she couldn't lock it. Plus they wouldn't turn her electricity back on yet, so she couldn't even stay there to guard her stuff. So then we headed home & cancelled the hotel room.

While we were there chatting with the firemen my bro in law showed up. He told the cops about his guinea pig & they let him in & sent him to a fireman. The fireman told him he doubted it would still be alive but that he would try to retrieve it just to see. He went into the garage & got the cage out & the guinea pig was indeed still alive. Everyone around was totally amazed by that.

By the time we got back there were people everywhere. Living in a gated community with a guard shack I didn't think we would be hit with the reporters & looky-loos, but somehow we have been. And then there's been a steady stream of officials who must come assess, etc. The next morning there was a meeting for the victims of the fire. I was pretty sure Victor wasn't going, so I went for him. I got lots of paperwork for him & plenty of info too. The building department was asking that everyone who was tagged stick around, they wanted to speak to them & reassess their homes. So I offered my house to my cousin & the Hicks (straight across from us). I mean, what were they going to do? Sit on the curb in front of their houses waiting in the heat? I represented my brother in law for his house, they left it red-tagged, but said they would allow entrance to the garage, the rest was totally unsafe (which is pretty obvious I must say) There was a non-stop stream of rubber necks (as my friend in Texas calls them) & all the news channels were here. Some were very obnoxious & obtrusive & others were more respectful. Later on FEMA came. They are trying to decide if this should be a federal disaster rather than a state disaster. If it becomes a federal disaster there will be a lot more aid available to the victims, which I feel would be a good thing. With the economy the way it is, I know it's hitting many very hard. And I've heard that there are several houses in here that didn't have homeowner's insurance. Once it becomes a federal disaster the people without insurance will be able to get their houses fixed they said. Later in the evening people came to board up the Hicks' house & my cousin's house. The police & firemen are still patrolling regularly too. We saw a big truck, like a moving truck, in front of my cousin's house & the cops were questioning them, which was good (one house in the community has already been looted). Then we saw flashlights in my cousin's backyard & we headed over there & asked what they were doing. They didn't answer right away & I think they didn't speak much English. When we asked again they managed to say "board up" & we realized it was ok, we had forgotten that my cousin said they were coming. Then the cop was right there looking at us & I said "it's my cousin's house" & the cop replied "that's my job, that's why I'm here" That's great that they are here, but I've still been doing my best to keep my eye on the houses here that are damaged. I am in the best spot on the corner to view them all & felt the need to try to protect my neighbors.

This morning there are still lots of big trucks coming through to do work. And tonight there is a homeowner's association meeting regarding the fire. I know there are some issues among the residents—it's been discovered that beneath the clay tile roofs there is a layer of newspaper. There are a few other issues I've heard mentioned, but none as serious as the roofing in my opinion. More people from the county of Riverside were stopping by assessing the tagged houses. The Hicks are here again today & they told them that we are related to my brother in law, so they brought me the paperwork. But traffic is much lighter overall today, it doesn't feel like a circus like it did yesterday. Hopefully now life will start to return to normal, at least as normal as it can be after a tragedy like this.

There are workers at the Hicks house removing what belongings they are able to. I think they are doing the same at my cousin's house. The workers at my cousin's house have placed a port-a-potty in their backyard. Most people are estimating it will be 6 months to 18 months for the badly damaged houses to be livable again. My cousin's damage (from what I saw) is mostly the roof, it is open in the middle. I am wondering about the Hicks' & Victor's house—will they bulldoze & start all over or will they be able to salvage some of what is still standing?

I haven't been able to follow the news much lately. I am not sure what the current state is on the fires—if they are completely out yet or still spreading somewhere? But I did see a few bits of the houses in Yorba Linda that our fire spread to. I've seen some that are literally just a cement slab with a pile of debris. It is a testimony to the hard work of the fireman (& a lot of neighbors that helped out too) that none of the houses in here are that bad. I've been told that we even had neighbors hosing down our house & plants for us.

I have to admit I've never experienced anything like this. To know that all you have is the clothes you are wearing, it's quite a feeling to say the least. And then once we knew our house didn't burn we at least knew we just had to wait a while to get access to our belongings, but I keep thinking of the others that no matter how long they wait they will not have access, they literally have to start all over again. I wasn't even longing for frivolous things like hair dryer, makeup, etc. All I wanted was soap, clean clothes, clean underwear, & food & water. It's also a horrible feeling to have no where to go. When we were told we had to check out of the hotel we didn't know where to go. It was such a weird feeling. If we had not been able to sneak into our house I don't know what we would've done. I told hubby that in all honesty I don't feel thrilled that our house is ok, I feel very guilty & almost a little embarrassed, in light of what has happened to our family & friends & our house is sitting in the midst of it all. Hubby said that he totally feels the same way. He said until I told him that he couldn't quite put his finger on what it was he was feeling, he was confused, but once I said he realized that's exactly what it is.

At the time I heard my palm tree was on fire & I was certain my house was burning & would be gone by the time we made it home I was trying hard to not think of what I was losing, but of course it was hard. It's true it's just 'stuff', but my mind kept going to the things that cannot be replaced. Like I know my Bible can be replaced, but not all the notes I have taken in it over the years. Things like that. And of course the economy has been taking it's toll on us, so replacing all our 'stuff' would be very difficult for us at this point, as I'm sure it is for my brother in law. If I wasn't pregnant I know for a fact I would have come here straight from work & walked in to see it all for myself. But with the smoke as bad as it was I worried about the risk to the baby & just couldn't do it. Hubby also begged me not to, because of the baby mostly.

I believe there were 15 houses total that were damaged by the fire, but I have looked & the 2 absolute worst (complete losses) are my brother in law & the Hicks (our good friends straight across from us on Alder Creek). There is very little to nothing that is salvageable in these houses. They both have no roof at all. The whole roof & upstairs at my brother in law's house is gone. The wall between the 2 front bedrooms is still there somewhat & the floor beneath those 2 bedrooms is still there (although you can see the one sagging above the entrance to the front door, so it may still fall & I am certain you can't walk up there or else you will fall through). The master bedroom across the back is the worst, the fire definitely appears to have started in the back. The blackened bed frame is hanging through the ceiling of the family room below, stuck in the wiring of the ceiling fan in the family room. There are no other signs of furniture or anything upstairs. Most of the downstairs is a mix of fire damage & water damage. The carpet is still totally saturated even now. The Hicks house has walls standing, but there is nothing inside, just a shell really. My cousin's house is missing the central part of it's roof & the one next to my bro in law had a car blow up in the garage, but the only damage is to the garage. It's an elderly couple that lives there & my bro in law said he was spraying their bedroom windows with the hose to wake them up to make sure they got out in time. The other two I didn't know the people there very well, mostly they have some roof damage, but they are only yellow tagged, the houses are still safe to enter. They have been removing all their belongings over the past couple of days. They were both renters to my knowledge.

The smell of the smokiness in the air really doesn't bother me, but hubby is kinda sensitive to it. And the interior of our house still has a smokey smell (we have now filed a claim with our insurance). Our bed was the worst, that was REALLY bothering me & hubby even woke up a few times in a panic dreaming that he was suffocating because of it. I washed all our bedding yesterday & am working on all our clothes today, but the mattress, couches, etc still smell of smoke. We are waiting for our insurance to come & decide what needs to be done. I have to admit that even though I don't notice it bothering me I do keep getting sore throats & I am sure it's because of the smokiness in our house. But when you get close to the burned houses the smell is really bad. It's this stench that I can't describe, close to that of burning flesh or a rotting corpse. It's just so ugly. It's a smell that is still lingering here when you get near those houses & it's a smell I will never ever forget.

This has definitely been a bad year for us, just one thing after another, when we think it can't get any worse it somehow does. But my heart aches for my brother in law—while it's been bad for us, it's definitely been worse for him. We are planning to try to start some sort of donation drive for him. We would really appreciate anyone who wants to donate. We are collecting what we can (secretly) & will surprise him with it all once we have a good amount of donations. Please contact me if you are interested.

In posting these pics I am reminded of when we took a trip to Yosemite at the beginning of this year. I had never been so up close to so much snow & it was so magnificent. I kept taking pics of it all to share with family & friends who hadn't gone, but the pics just didn't seem to do it justice—you just couldn't capture the reality of it all in photos. This situation is much like that, these pics don't look nearly as bad as it does in person. Having said that, here a few pics I am willing to post to express what we are going through:

The burned canyon:

Firetrucks all over Feather River Rd:

Firemen working (with my bro in law's house in background):

Fireman in my niece's bedroom window:

The house next to my bro in law where the car blew up in the garage:

One of the many news vans that lived here during it all:

The Hicks' (straight across from us on Alder Creek)--it is really much worse in person, everything inside is charred & there is no roof left, only the edges of it remain:

My cousin's open roof (I have many more pics of her house, but it's mostly just debris & I had a feeling they didn't want people seeing that):

The rest are of my bro in law's house:

The back of the house:

Master bedroom window:

Master bath window:

Looking up:

The living room: (if you look in the top right corner of the first pic here you can see a crack where the floor of my mother in law's room is, where I think the floor is weak)


Family Room (the stuff on the bookshelf looks like it might be salvageable from a distance here):

Family room with bedframe from master bedroom hanging through ceiling, caught on wiring of family room's ceiling fan:

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