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The Agony of Leaving Some Behind

Fast-moving flames forced fire crews to leave a rural San Diego County enclave without warning homeowners, four of whom later died.

October 29, 2003|Scott Glover, Jack Leonard and Matt Lait | Times Staff Writers

LAKESIDE, Calif. — Two firefighters had reached the security gate of Lake View Hills Estates just ahead of the Cedar fire early Sunday but were ordered to retreat before they could warn homeowners, four of whom later died in the fire's path.

With no help from authorities, families of this secluded neighborhood in rural San Diego County had only minutes to decide how to escape the fire that also destroyed five homes.

"There was absolutely nothing we could do, short of getting ourselves killed," said Lakeside Fire Capt. Scott Culkin, who was in charge of the fire command post that night. "It was such a tremendous fire that if you stayed, you'd die. We knew that we were going to have some people who were trapped and were probably not going to make it."

Weary firefighters on Tuesday expressed frustration and anger that they were unable to help. "We lose some houses every once in a while," said Capt. Tim Macrorie. "We don't lose people."

"This is a devastating feeling for us," Culkin added. "We know what our jobs are."

Fire officials from Lakeside Fire Station 3 said they were outmaneuvered and overmatched against the fast-moving fire that jumped from hilltop to hilltop. Firefighters, some catching a break after working back-to-back shifts, said Tuesday they had never seen such a ferocious wildfire.

"People talk about firestorms," said Division Chief Ron Laff. "This was a firestorm plus."

Sometime after 3:05 a.m. Sunday, two firefighters in a paramedic unit drove to the security gate outside the 10-home enclave. The pair made sure that the gate was open. Within minutes of arriving and reporting the fire conditions over the radio, they were ordered to turn back.

Firefighters in nearby neighborhoods were also told to retreat. On the way out, however, they said they were able to alert some residents by banging on doors and honking air horns. Firefighters called through a bullhorn: Save your lives. Get out now.

Lake View Hills Estates residents were left to fend for themselves.

Fire Capt. Dan Marshall said his colleagues had to leave. "They were going to be enveloped in fire in a matter of minutes," he said. "Their escape route was going to be cut off. They were going to die."

Firefighter Bryan Peters, a three-year department veteran, said he was evacuating residents along Yerba Valley Road, about half a mile east of the Lake View Hills Estates, when "everything I could see turned into fire within a few seconds. I knew it was time to get the hell out of there."

As firefighters made their retreat, the fire bore down on them.

"I was convinced that whoever was left behind didn't have much of a chance," said Peters, a father of 14-month-old twins. Later that night, as he stared back into the fiery canyon, Peters and another firefighter broke into tears.

"I wish we could have done more," Peters said, wiping away fresh tears as he recounted the episode. "But we did everything we could."

Survivors described their terrifying ordeal. The first to leave their homes were able to escape on the neighborhood's only road out -- Muth Valley Road, which quickly turned into a fiery path. Others waited in their homes.

One couple found refuge in their swimming pool as the fire engulfed their home.

A family of three -- James Shohara, 63, Solange Shohara, 58, and their son Randy, 22 -- apparently were killed trying to escape to nearby San Vicente Reservoir.

Stephen Shacklett, 55, is believed to have died trying to drive his RV out Muth Valley Road.

Survivor Natalie Corbett, who called 911 and was told that firefighters had left the area, said she believed some sort of warning should have been issued, even if it was by helicopter.

But she wasn't angry: "I'm just glad to be alive."

Jodi Hamilton, who survived the fire along with her husband and 2-year-old son by dodging flames in their car, said firefighters "probably thought there was no hope. If I were them looking at us, in a gated community with one way out, I would have said, 'They're on their own.' "

Several residents said they saw the two firefighters as they prepared to leave their neighborhood.

Joe McLean, whose family was the first in the neighborhood to leave, said he didn't understand why they provided no warning.

"I never heard a siren, no one honked their horn, there were no bullhorns," he said.

"There was nothing. We were on our own. I understand that they were overwhelmed, but someone knew it was coming."

McLean said that when he and his family escaped the neighborhood in his car, he saw three fire engines parked less than a mile from the security gate.

One firetruck pulled out in front of him, and led him out of the canyon and the other two followed.

"I don't blame them," McLean said.

"They were saving their lives. The only thing I'm questioning is why wasn't there someone there hours before?"

For the firemen of Station 3, the Cedar fire was not considered a threat at first. It had begun miles away in a remote patch of the Cleveland National Forest.

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