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The State | SOUTHLAND FIRES

Foothill and Flatlands Residents Left Devastated

Apartment dwellers and homeowners, burned out of their residences, find themselves scrambling for shelter at evacuation centers.

October 26, 2003|Louis Sahagun and Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writers

Residents and firefighters sat helpless on a curb in the Del Rosa neighborhood of San Bernardino on Saturday and watched as two houses across the street finished burning to the ground. Popping sounds emanated at regular intervals from burning garages along the block -- the noise, firefighters said, of propane tanks and car tires exploding.

In hundreds of scenes like this, smoke-shrouded confusion and turmoil swept the city of 185,000 as the blaze dubbed the Old Fire in Waterman Canyon catapulted from the mountains, consuming million-dollar homes in the foothills and raging into working-class neighborhoods of the flatlands.

At least 100 houses burned to the ground, including some of the city's most pricey. And, as the fire hopscotched capriciously through neighborhoods, some homeowners came out better than others.

Robert S. Edmistan buried his face in a handkerchief and sobbed. He had rushed to his son's Del Rosa house and helped other relatives save it.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 06, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 News Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Fire photographs -- On Oct. 26, captions with a front-page photograph and a photo inside Section A misidentified a man trying to save his house from the fires in San Bernardino. He is Jim Kilgore, not Jim Killmore.

"I'm so happy," he said. "I'm so happy."

Nearby, the sight of her home caused 18-year-old Catherine Adkins to burst into tears.

Adkins, an honor student at Pacific High School, had refused to believe the phone call she received in the late afternoon saying that her home had been destroyed.

"They told me my house had burned down, and I had to see for myself," said Adkins, who shared the house with her grandmother, Clara Escobar.

Arriving at 9:30 p.m., she strode up to a low flagstone wall that once was part of her bedroom. A pile of embers and ashes was all that remained of her stereo, surfing posters and letters. But what she missed most was a notebook crammed with her scholastic achievements.

At the wall, her hand over her mouth, she stood sobbing.

For hundreds of residents, the day ended in hastily organized emergency shelters where they waited through the night, not knowing the fate of their homes and belongings.

At San Bernardino International Airport, more than 500 people crowded into a room usually used for checking in passengers and luggage. Children cried, dogs barked and elderly people in wheelchairs struggled to navigate through the crowds, trying to find out where they could spend the night or waiting for any kind of news.

Volunteers handed out juice, water, pastries and bagels to those who still didn't know. A chaplain wandered from person to person, chatting.

Malissa Hunter had left her home so quickly that she forgot a device to help her 9-month-old daughter, Alicia, breathe following a recent surgery.

"I had to hurry and grab all of the medical equipment, but we forgot the most important part," Hunter said, surrounded by an oxygen tank and bags of medical equipment.

She'd been trying to locate her husband to ask him to go back for the piece of equipment, she said, but had difficulty finding a phone. "There are no pay phones and no access to [other] phones," she said. "They should not tell us to come down here if they are not prepared."

Moments later, her husband arrived with the equipment in hand.

Some who had been evacuated tried to return to their foothill homes, only to be met and ordered to leave once again by police and sheriff's deputies patrolling their streets with spotlights, searching the burned and crumbling houses for looters.

The day began unthreateningly for Wade Cochran, a retired California Highway Patrol officer who lives in the ritzy Del Rosa Estates neighborhood in the foothills on the east side.

Cochran saw fire in the mountains to the north about 10 a.m. and thought it was nothing.

But a few hours later, as the violent Santa Ana winds whipped the flames toward his street, sheriff's deputies and police came through with bullhorns announcing a mandatory evacuation. Cochran ignored it.

Standing in his frontyard at 4 p.m., he seemed oblivious to the homes burning all around him, open gas mains hissing and palm trees bursting into flames.

"They told me to leave, but I'm OK," he said, his home spared. "I'm really OK. Everything is all right now."

Miles away, in the flatlands, the fire leapfrogged from the treetops of eucalyptus, pine and palm.

Carol Reed, 52, watched embers fly through the air and land in a palm tree near her home at 39th Street and Harrison. The tree exploded into flames.

"The minute I saw that palm tree ignite, I jumped into my car and drove away," Reed said. "Then I turned around and saw my neighbor's roof catch fire. Then I knew my house would go too."

Reed returned that evening. Surveying the smoldering ruins of her home, she said, "I don't have a clue about what to do now. Virtually everything I have is gone."

In another foothill neighborhood, one of modest homes, Eli Burgos slumped forward and slapped the ground between his splayed legs in despair.

"This is my life," he said to the concrete in front of his face. "Everything I own."

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