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Residents Relieved That Homes Intact

October 01, 2005|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

When Iris Keijer returned Friday to the Bell Canyon home she and her family fled two nights earlier, she was so overjoyed to find everything intact that she almost felt guilty.

"You hear about what's going on in New Orleans," Keijer explained. "Well, we had just remodeled our kitchen, and I was just so happy to see my kitchen again.

"I didn't get down and kiss the ground, though I did feel like it," she added.

For many families in the exclusive, gated community on the eastern edge of Ventura County, Friday was a day of relief, as well as gratitude for the work of firefighters.

Authorities lifted the mandatory evacuation order, and many homeowners returned -- glad to discover that their houses were all safe, even if flames had blackened the hillsides beside their property and the air was soiled with smoke and ash.

Keijer, her husband, Jakob, and two sons, ages 13 and 10, left Wednesday night for a relative's home in Camarillo, taking family photos and videos, along with clothing and legal documents. They took off after looking out from their single-story, Spanish-style house and seeing a semi-circle of fire around the canyon.

"I was afraid of getting trapped," said Keijer, a state government lawyer.

As she recalls it, this is the second evacuation, and third fire, to hit the community in the eight years the family has lived there. Still, she and many of her neighbors don't want to move.

"It's quiet, it's beautiful and it's private. I've never regretted one day living here," she said.

However, Keijer admitted being terrified early Friday morning when she heard on a newscast that fire had erupted close to their house. By phone, she reached a neighbor who stayed behind despite the call for evacuation and who later assured her that the Keijer home was fine.

Coming back to the house and seeing it for themselves, though, was a relief. Keijer's younger son, Holden, said: "It was great. I could play video games; all the power was on. I could listen to music -- to call all my friends, take a nice shower."

Bell Canyon residents responded to the crisis in a variety of ways.

Among the handful of people who stayed in their homes throughout the ordeal despite the potential danger were Andrea Kivo, the friend of the Keijer family who checked their home, and her husband, Robert.

Robert Kivo, who has lived in the same Bell Canyon house for 25 years, said he was comforted by the fact that a neighbor, a Los Angeles city firefighter, informally advised them that they still were safe.

And the Kivos, who have daughters ages 7 and 9, didn't want to inconvenience friends, especially because they would need housing for their two dogs as well.

All the same, Andrea Kivo said she got her children and dogs into the car twice during the ordeal, and was within a moment of leaving when her husband convinced her that they weren't in danger.

Staying during the evacuation, Robert Kivo, an attorney, said, "was eerie because the whole canyon was like a ghost town. There were no cars except for ours and our fireman neighbor's, as well as the fire engines and cops."

The Kivos' house "kind of served as a command center for a lot of folks," Andrea Kivo said. Worried neighbors who had fled kept calling. "We felt very good about telling people it's going to be OK," she said.

Friday, she added, was "a cleaning day." She said she was busy sweeping ash off their cars and the yard.

Linda Shanley, another Bell Canyon resident, was also grateful for the firefighters. But she said that she, her husband and their two daughters, ages 9 and 8, would stay away from home a third night, at her mother's Northridge home.

Shanley said that when she visited their house Friday, it was fine, but "there was still the ominous feeling of the fire."

"The air was very, very dirty. You could still see the ashes falling," she said.

Shanley said her family moved into their new home in Bell Canyon in July, only after she was convinced that firefighters could protect the community. This week, she said, "that played out to be true."

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