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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRESTORMS

Fleeing, Fretting and Returning -- to What?

A family in San Antonio Heights is frustrated to find it can't go home again, until the all-clear.

October 27, 2003|Alan Zarembo and Geoffrey Mohan | Times Staff Writers

The videotape shows a shadowy nightmare of flames surrounding million-dollar homes, and the Grasso family was sure their 8,000-square-foot manse would be among the fire's victims.

The Grassos were sitting in their black Hummer H2, shooting a videotape for posterity. It was 10 p.m. Saturday, and Holly Hills Estates, their gated community, was within the grasp of the flames that were devilishly snatching away home after home in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains northwest of Rancho Cucamonga.

"Maybe it's past us, maybe it's past us," Mina Grasso, 41, can be heard saying on the videotape, as she stifled sobs.

Then she blurted out: "You know what, honey? I didn't bring the wedding videos." She burst into tears before a firefighter interrupted.

"You guys really need to get out of here," he warned, and the family drove off.

It wasn't that the Grassos didn't know the dangers of living near the top of a dry hillside. But you couldn't beat the view, the large plots and the wildlife -- coyotes and bobcats -- that wandered through the dry chaparral.

John Grasso, 49, an anesthesiologist who runs a private Botox clinic with his nurse practitioner wife, ticked off the aesthetics that trumped caution.

"First, the view was spectacular," he said. "Second, I've never seen architecture like that. Third, we're socially inclined. My wife said, 'This is the ultimate party house. I need it.' "

Every fall for the last seven years, fires burned near enough that pumpers had to be stationed in the driveways of the homes that sit on 1-acre hilltop lots. Each year, they survived unscathed.

As Santa Ana winds kicked up Saturday, stoking the season's first major fires, John and Mina Grasso and their 6-year-old son, Alex, vacationed in Oceanside. Jonathan, their 19-year-old son, stayed home.

John's cellphone rang shortly after noon Saturday. It was Jonathan. There were voluntary evacuations in San Antonio Heights, their community, the teen said.

At 5 p.m., Jonathan called back. He'd gone to a party down the hill, and now he couldn't get back to the house. Police were blocking the road. A mandatory evacuation was underway.

The Grassos headed home. When they got to their house, at 7 p.m. Saturday, fire crews were going door-to-door, asking people to leave. The family rushed inside, grabbing Stitch, their Chihuahua. They snatched up jewelry, money, handguns and some of the things no insurance policy can replace: photo albums, videotapes, passports. They stuffed the rear of their vehicle before heading down the hillside.

As they left, they thought of everything they'd done in their dream house: They once served a 100-person sit-down dinner. A five-piece band had played from the balcony over the cavernous center room of the house, appointed with black leather furniture and illuminated by stage lighting reminiscent of a rock club venue. They remembered spotting coyotes and bobcats in the nearby scrub, and the occasional scorpion that got into the home. All of it, they were sure, would be gone overnight.

They drove to John's brother's home in Dade Creek, about 20 minutes away. There, they watched TV footage of the fire's advance. Soon, the broadcast told them flames were surrounding their neighborhood of 10 houses. The family hopped in the Hummer and drove back, but not to their home. They could only watch from a distance, as a teary Mina shot videotape.

They headed back to the house of John's brother. They tried to sleep, but worry and howling winds kept them awake. Frustrated, they arose at 3 a.m. and drove again toward their house. Police at roadblocks turned them away. The police said they were guarding the neighborhood from looters and had no information on the Grasso house.

No one had information at a local American Red Cross station, either, so they drove some more, looking to get through on back roads. All of them were blocked. "We had to know," Mina recalled.

They returned to Dade Creek dejected. At 6 a.m. Sunday, John got a message on his cellphone. It was a fire official. Their house had survived.

What they saw when they finally drove up at 11 a.m. hammered home the brutal lesson of wildfires. They destroy some homes with an unchecked ferocity, yet inexplicably spare others.

One neighbor's house appeared to survive only because, in a remodeling project, a trench was dug around the foundation to shore it up. The trench had served as a firebreak, with grass at its edges singed black.

Ashes still fell from the smoky skies, and the air smelled like an old fireplace as they pulled up. The once-green hillside below their home was a spooky wasteland of charred, leafless branches and rust-colored rocks.

"I hope the insurance covers landscaping," John said. "We just lost a sprinkler system for 1.7 acres."

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