As flames lapped the walls of his apartment before dawn Saturday, Joseph Fallas stopped briefly in his smoke-filled living room, scooped up his 6-year-old son's presents from under the Christmas tree and fled into the frigid early morning dressed only in his pajamas.
The fire, which began about 3:30 a.m. in his next-door neighbor's apartment in the Grand-Beechwood apartment complex in north Santa Ana, forced Fallas' family and seven other families from their homes less than a week before Christmas.
But Saturday afternoon as Fallas, his wife, Ruth, and son, Alex, moved into their temporary lodging in another part of the 162-apartment complex, they said they hoped that the fire would not put too much of a damper on their Christmas.
The Fallases are among a number of county residents who have been displaced from their homes by a spate of fires this holiday season. Since Thanksgiving, the Red Cross has provided housing, clothing or food for 30 people who have fled their homes because of fires, spokeswoman Barbara Lohman said.
Christmas plans are going up in smoke, Orange County Fire Department spokeswoman Michele Palmer said, because of fires that often are caused by defective heating systems or faulty fireplaces.
"A lot of fires get started in the ducts of the heating systems of new houses," Palmer said. "There's still stuff left there from construction."
In older houses, Palmer said, the problem often stems from fireplaces that have a buildup of carbon deposits that ignite. Sparks also may escape from fireplaces with worn or lost fire arresters and ignite roof shingles, Palmer said.
The cause of Saturday's fire at the Grand-Beechwood apartment complex has not been determined, Santa Ana Fire Department spokesman Mark Grant said. The fire caused $120,000 in damage to the building and $40,000 in damage to the contents, he said.
It took 23 firefighters 30 minutes to control the blaze, Grant said. The apartment where the fire broke out was destroyed, Grant said, and the two adjoining apartments were moderately damaged. Five other apartments were less damaged but are uninhabitable because of smoke or water damage, Grant said.
The eight families displaced by the fire were allowed to move into vacant apartments in the complex by manager Elsie Blandin.
"That's really unusual," said Red Cross spokeswoman Nancy Dolan. "Most apartment managers don't do that."
Blandin downplayed the significance of what she did, saying: "I just did it because they needed some place to go. Besides, it's Christmas."
Blandin gave Lucy Connel a furnished apartment because the 70-year-old retired laboratory technician has trouble getting around. Her right arm and leg are partially paralyzed from a stroke she suffered two years ago.
"This hasn't been a good Christmas," Connel said. "My daughter's in the hospital because she was in a car wreck last week. And then this morning there was the fire. . . . I was just able to get out with what I'm wearing now."
But, she said as she stroked her cat Kelly, "Even with what's happened, Kelly and I have a lot to be thankful for this Christmas."
Another fire forced Vickie and Robert Suba of Mission Viejo and the six developmentally disabled children they care for from their home on Trabuco Circle on Thursday.
On Saturday, Suba, 49, sifted through the debris, salvaging what he could. The fire caused $100,000 in damage.
"I'm staying here and trying to get this mess cleaned up," he said, his voice edged with exhaustion. Suba's wife, Vickie, 47, was out looking for a five-bedroom house to rent.
Insurance will cover most of the damage, Suba said, but while repairs are being made, they're living elsewhere.
For the time being the Subas, their 17-year-old daughter, Anne, and three children with Down's syndrome are staying with relatives in Mission Viejo. The three other children are staying with their natural parents for the holidays.