Monday, November 17, 2008


Porcelain figures rescued from ashes Monday.

By Guy McCarthy

From Corona to Yorba Linda and Carbon Canyon, it was clear Monday why some forestry and fire specialists have started using the term "fireshed."

It was also obvious that post-fire erosion will be a concern the next time it rains hard on an estimated 45 square miles of blackened slopes and gullies, from the Santa Ana River to the Chino Hills.

But Monday was also a time for survivors of the weekend fires to reflect and count their blessings, while firefighters and utility crews worked into the night for a third day in a row.

Investigators were busy too. Near the point of origin for the so-called Freeway Complex in Corona, a team from Cal Fire worked in a charred field, using red and yellow flags to mark the fire's movement in its earliest stages.

"We're still in the process of conducting the investigation to determine the cause of the fire," said Cal Fire Capt. Marc DeRosier, who is based in San Bernardino. "That has not been determined yet."

DeRosier added that he and his team were assisting the Corona Fire Department with the investigation.

"The red flags designate forward advance of the fire," DeRosier said. "The yellow flags designate lateral progression of the fire."

A few hundred yards away in the first community where homes were damaged, Sandy Brown, 60, felt fortunate most of her house on Feather River Road was still standing.

"I'm not totally surprised by the fire, because the house backs up to wilderness," Brown said. "That's why we bought it, for the view.

"The firefighters were wonderful, of course," Brown said. "Channel 4 showed 10 of them on the roof, chopping away at the flames. The whole roof is a total loss, but the rest of the house is okay."

Brown's tenant, Kay Rains, said she was completely surprised by the fire.

"There was no warning whatsoever," Rains said. "No sirens, no fire engines at first. A lot of smoke, and then the neighbor's yard was on fire.

"People should just be prepared at any time," Rains said. "This can happen to you."

Several miles west and high above the riverbed on Alpine Lane in Yorba Linda, Ron Gibson, 53, made a similar point.

"When they say you have 30 seconds to get out, they mean 30 seconds," Gibson said. "A fireball came over that ridge, six stories high. We had to run for our lives."

Gibson said he and his family barely escaped, and everything else burned, including their vehicles.

"It was like a mushroom cloud that engulfed everything," Gibson said of the flames. "The house is gone. A huge mistake that we built. But the insurance company has told me they'll take care of everything."

Gibson's 19-year-old daughter, Summer, said the loss of her home and belongings rattled her. But she said she also sees a chance to turn over a new leaf.

"My parents told me to pack, but I wasn't listening," she said. "I'm just a spoiled girl with two closets of clothes, who always had everything. Now all that's gone.

"This is really a reality check. I feel sorry for my neighbors. But I still feel fortunate."

On San Antonio Road, 18-year-old Richard Fitkin sifted through ashes and found a group of tiny white porcelain figures.

"It's a nativity scene, from the day Christ was born," Fitkin said, after lining them up on a charred beam that used to be part of his home. "They're the only thing in the house that survived."

Fitkin said he woke up Saturday morning, the fire came out of the hills, and there were no warnings on his street.

"Apparently the house burned down in 30 minutes," Fitkin said.

According to Cal Fire and the Orange County Fire Authority, the fire that started in Corona and spread to three neighboring counties destroyed more than 150 homes and damaged more than 100.

At 7 p.m. Monday, containment of the fires was estimated at 60 percent. Fighting the fires up to that point had cost an estimated $10.7 million.

In Los Angeles County, evacuations for Diamond Bar residents were lifted Monday afternoon. But as the sun set on the other side of the hills in San Bernardino County, it was clear an evacuation order remained in effect on Carbon Canyon Road all the way to Sleepy Hollow.

In the meantime, a group of neighbors who refused to evacuate had the town to themselves. They were disappointed the local liquor store had closed for the fires, but they were making do Monday night with a bottle of sake and ice.

"We stayed because we knew the fire would come," said Bill Worthing, 37, sitting in his driveway with Robin Overholser, 56.

"The whole ridge was glowing red, embers were flying, we had flames 50 feet away," Worthing said, recalling the height of the threat early Sunday. "We worked with shovels and garden hoses."

Manny Ocampo, 33, joined his neighbors and declined sake for the time being.

"It was pretty scary, but we fed off each other," Ocampo said. "It was like hell at night, raining down embers."

Another neighbor named Ethan joined the driveway gathering.

"The laziest friends I have were out here fighting fire," Ethan said. "We were yelling at each other - 'You still over there?' 'I can feel it over here.'"

Firefighters and inmate crews were patrolling for hot spots in Sleepy Hollow well after dark Monday. Just beyond Sleepy Hollow, Edison crews worked under generator-powered lamps to repair downed power poles and sagging lines.

According to the City of Chino Hills, "Due to the nature of the communities in Carbon Canyon, fire officials cannot do their job and share the road with the number of vehicles that would be in the area if the order was lifted."

The evacuation order will be lifted at 10 a.m. Tuesday, according to Chino Hills officials.


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