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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRES

Helping Hands in Moorpark

Residents of a mobile home park in the path of the Simi fire feel the kindness of strangers.

October 31, 2003|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

Residents at the Villa del Arroyo Mobile Home Estates have struggled to get back on their feet, forced to manage without phones or electricity after the fast-moving Simi fire gutted two homes and charred every inch of the hillsides around them.

Luckily, they haven't had to bounce back on their own.

Like so many communities across fire-scorched Southern California, the mobile home park in northeast Moorpark has been touched by the kindness of strangers, having been inundated and at times overwhelmed by donations designed to aid victims of the weeklong wildfire.

Since Saturday's fire, local companies have donated lunches and dinners for the park's 500 residents, many of whom are low-income or retired senior citizens.

Coca-Cola supplied soda, water and juice. Albertsons donated ice while Food Share delivered canned goods and other staples. Southern California Edison provided a steak dinner and free flashlights to residents forced to make their way in the dark until power was restored late Wednesday.

Surrounded by stacks of supplies at the park's clubhouse Thursday, resident managers Joe and Barbara Agnello said they have never seen anything like it.

"It has just been incredibly inspiring," Joe Agnello said. "As tragic as this was for some people, it has just been overwhelming to see such an outpouring of support."

Suzanne Taylor was among the first to reach for her checkbook. As executive director of Augusta Homes, the Upland-based nonprofit that owns the 240-unit park, Taylor talked her way past roadblocks to arrive at the burned-out area Sunday morning, just south of California 118 below Moorpark College.

She delivered drinks and snacks and other sustenance. And she immediately cut a $500 check to the Villa del Arroyo Homeowner's Assn. for use however it was needed.

"It has just been so heartwarming," Taylor said. "People have been looking to help any way they can."

For some, the help was deeply personal. Betty Gilmore arrived at the park's office Thursday morning with checkbook in hand, looking to pay the rent for the space on which her burned-out mobile home now sits. The home was one of two destroyed and four damaged when the fire jumped California 118 Saturday afternoon, sending residents scrambling for safety.

Management refused to take her money, telling her to use it to get back on her feet.

"Are you trying to make me cry?" a grateful Gilmore said as Barbara Agnello delivered a hug.

Random acts of kindness were practiced all week at Villa del Arroyo. Simi Valley City Councilman Glen Becerra showed up at the mobile home park Tuesday after learning about the residents' plight through his job as public affairs regional manager for Southern California Edison.

By Wednesday morning, he had arranged for Coca-Cola to make deliveries, persuaded friends who own Burger King franchises to provide free lunches and gotten Edison to foot the bill for Wednesday night's steak dinner.

"I view the area as a big community and when emergencies happen you've got to respond as a community," Becerra said. "I really do believe that when times get tough, the nature of the American character is really to rise up and lend a helping hand."

At this point, Diane McDonald will take all the help she can get. Her mobile home was the other one gutted Saturday and she is lucky that was all that was lost. McDonald was napping before her nursing shift at Santa Paula Memorial Hospital when she awoke shortly before 6 p.m. to find flames licking at her bedroom window.

She grabbed her purse and raced out the door just as the bedroom window exploded and the fire swept in and engulfed the home.

McDonald, the mother of two, whose children were spending the night with their father in Thousand Oaks, returned Sunday to find her bed burned down to the box spring, personal belongings blistered and bubbled and ceiling fans and kitchen lights melted and oozing. Pet fish and a guinea pig died in the blaze.

McDonald had moved into the mobile home only three months earlier. She had put up $90,000 of her own money to buy the unit and put another $5,000 onto a credit card so she could own it outright. But she had not gotten around to insuring the home, meaning it and its contents are a total loss. The Villa del Arroyo Homeowner's Assn. has created a recovery fund for McDonald through a local bank. Anyone interested in contributing is asked to call the park at 523-7444.

"The outpouring of support has just been amazing," McDonald said, looking over the losses again Thursday morning. "It just doesn't seem like enough to say, 'Thank you.' "

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