Like many fire captains, Bill Lockhart spent the first days of the Santiago fire sweaty, exhausted and teary-eyed from smoke and lack of sleep.
But after 56 hours on the fire line, he switched to a new assignment -- one that taxed him emotionally. It was now his job to tell families their homes were destroyed.
"We don't just say, 'Your house burned down; you're on your own.' We take them there," he said.
Lockhart was one of two Orange County fire captains working a little-known duty. As an "occupant liaison," he helped track down more than a dozen families, starting with county tax records, then talking with neighbors who had not evacuated. He made the dreaded calls, then took homeowners to survey the damage, accompanied by a chaplain and a counselor.
The Santiago fire has destroyed 16 homes in Orange County's canyons. Although the burned areas were still under an evacuation order, the Fire Department made exceptions for those who lost homes, shuttling them through the moonscape terrain and giving them time to reflect on the damage and search for belongings.
"Unfortunately, there's rarely a lot left," said Capt. Dave Steffen, one of the liaisons. "It was incredible how consuming this fire was."
Visitors used the time to come to terms with the destruction. Some sought a technical explanation of how their homes burned.
"It's just closure," said Gabriel Ruiz, 32, surveying the remnants of his parents' home on Modjeska Grade Road, now a blackened maze of wood and metal. "You have to see it to believe it."
His wife, Georgiana, 30, said her only wish was that her 2-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son would never see the destruction.
"This was Grandma's house. This was the comfort zone," she said.
A yellow fire hose, burned into short sections, lay in the driveway, a sign of firefighters' hasty retreat.
Fire Chaplain Robert Benoun stood aside as Ruiz picked up a framed photo of his son that had withstood the fire.
"You have to take it in to let it go," Benoun said.
The fire captains on liaison duty also filled the role of counselor. They listened to people upset with firefighters for not saving their homes and those who were puzzled by the apparent randomness of the destruction.
"Even though we didn't lose that many homes in this fire, we lost the most important home, and that's your home," Lockhart told Abraham Nasiri, who asked why his Williams Canyon home burned while his next-door neighbor's did not. His neighbor, who stayed to defend his home despite an order to evacuate, told Nasiri he saw firefighters reclining in lawn chairs as his home burned.
"I can't put things together. I can't blame anybody. I can't solve anything," Nasiri said. "I have to start building. I have to start doing something."
Being the bearers of bad news was emotionally exhausting for the captains, who shouldered the feelings of loss -- and sometimes anger.
"We're there for very intimate moments and have to help people process through them," Lockhart said. "It's a significant moment to lose a house, and it affects us personally. It's a sense of defeat, a sense of futility."
For Sue and Brian Geraci, a visit Friday provided an explanation for how their three-story ridge-top home, known by friends and neighbors as the Chateau, was so quickly and thoroughly consumed.
Steffen told them that 100-foot flames had raced up a steep draw below their house. It was the path of least resistance, he said.
Brian Geraci took it in.
"You know how you work your way up and you stretch, and you buy your dream house?" Geraci said. "Well, this was it. Not anymore. I guess I'm going to build a metal house next."
It also gave his wife a chance to salvage mementos: a ceramic duck, her patio wind chimes and her adult daughter's collection of ceramic angels, one for each of her birthdays.
"She's trying to find treasures beneath the ash," said friend Linda Aguilar, who was housing the Geracis and accompanied them on the visit. "She's looking for memories."