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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRESTORMS

'You Realize You're Homeless'

October 27, 2003|Anna Gorman and Scott Glover | Times Staff Writers

There was little left of Dave Mead's first home when he got back to it Sunday, except the bitter memories of being chased away by police as the flames approached.

Only the front steps and a charred file cabinet, still holding the 35-year-old teacher's master's thesis and some student artwork, were recognizable in the rubble.

Like many in the burned-out Del Rosa neighborhood of San Bernardino, Mead had desperately wanted to stay and defend his house. He watered it down with a garden hose until police showed up with handcuffs at 3:15 p.m. Saturday and told him to go.

"It was alive," Mead said of the fire. "It was an unbelievable storm of ash and wind."

The teacher threw his 90-pound mutt, Mojo, over his shoulder and took off in his car. As he looked behind him, he called his wife, whom he had sent to safety an hour earlier with their 13-month-old son.

"Honey, it's catching fire," he told her of their first home.

Many neighbors on his side of the street were luckier. Although all had been in the path of the destructive Old fire, their houses were intact. While happy for them, Mead said he was struggling to understand the randomness. He thought: Maybe I should have fought with the police, stayed longer with my hose.

As he wiped his eyes, moist from emotion and soot, he said: "You realize that you're homeless."

The nonsensical path of fire left houses burned to the ground even as landscaped yards stayed pristine. The nearby hills were burned in patches that showed the fire's fickle leaps.

Often only the outline and chimney of a home remained.

*

Frantic Drive Home

Sally and Claudio Hernandez had spent Saturday driving frantically home from a weekend trip to Arizona. Alerted by neighbors that fire was threatening, they rushed to get back to the house, just down the street from Mead's, that they purchased in 1996 after saving for five years to make the down payment.

"I held out some hope," said Sally Hernandez, as frequent cell-phone calls kept them updated. One neighbor offered reassurances, saying that if their answering machine was still working, their house must still be there.

Finally, still en route, a friend called.

"I'm sorry, Sally," the friend began, signaling the worst.

But the Hernandezes still needed to see for themselves.

On Sunday afternoon, Sally, who works at a dialysis center, and Claudio, who repairs boxcars for a railroad, stood silently and hugged. There was nothing but debris. Every few seconds, she thought of items she might have taken with them, had they gotten home in time. Family mementos -- her daughter's prom photo, the only picture she had of the 19-year-old wearing a dress.

The rubble of their modest home was still too hot to pick through, but the Hernandezes couldn't bring themselves to leave. It was here where their extended family had gathered to celebrate birthdays and watch football games.

"There are a lot of memories, but everything is gone," Sally Hernandez said. "I can't leave. I don't want to leave my house."

Her 13-year-old son, Claudio Jr., tried to cheer his mother up with a lighthearted list of possessions he would miss: his Sony PlayStation, his Scarface movie posters, his TV.

"It's better to joke around than to think of what we lost," he said. "My parents worked so hard for this stuff and it's gone in a flash."

Bob Latham, 75, returned to his home on La Hacienda Drive to a different kind of shock. The home where he had lived for 32 years was virtually unscathed.

Like Mead, he had stood firm with his garden hose into Saturday afternoon, even as flames licked over his retaining wall and cars exploded in neighbors' driveways. It took police to force the retired Air Force mechanic to evacuate.

Nearly all of the other homes on the cul-de-sac had burned to the ground.

"Obviously, I'm doing better than most," said the white-haired retiree, wearing a T-shirt that read: "If I can't win, I don't want to play."

Bill Daugherty, a UPS retiree, had given up on protecting his home on Ralston Drive on Saturday after a flying ember burned a hole through his shirt.

"That's when I said, 'It's time to go,' " he said Sunday. He had lived in the house since 1972, working over the decades to landscape his property.

Lost in the fire were an aviary and 50 birds, and the koi in his three ponds had all perished.

He looked on stoically as his daughter-in-law and some of his grandchildren tried to salvage the contents of a safe where he and his wife, Kathleen, kept their Christmas savings to buy gifts for the 28 grandchildren.

Daugherty said they were determined to rebuild.

"There's just too much here," he said, cutting himself short as emotion almost overcame him.

*

Haunted by Choices

Some people wondered Sunday about their last-minute choices as they fled. Judy Petersen had gathered up birth certificates, her marriage license, the family's three cockatiels and Chihuahua as she rushed from her Camellia Drive house.

"And I grabbed my stack of bills -- don't ask me why," she said.

If the city allows it, Petersen's family plans to live in a trailer on the property while they rebuild.

"If somebody would have come and said, 'We're going to take everything in your house,' I would have said, 'Take it,' " she said. "But your house itself ... now I'm homeless."

She shook her head, her face masked.

"This is bad," she said. "This is really bad."

A few blocks away, Audie Desbrow, 46, formerly the drummer for the rock band Great White, surveyed his devastated home. Gone was the recording studio along with hundreds of CDs, music industry awards -- everything he owned.

Wearing blue jeans and a black T-shirt, Desbrow summed up his losses: "All I got's what I have on."

*

Times staff writers Megan Garvey and Steve Hymon contributed to this report.

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