Poway neighbors fight flames themselves

POWAY -- Sal Crivello considered himself fortunate four years ago when the Cedar fire stopped short of the craggy, brush-covered ravines and narrow, winding roads that define his High Valley neighborhood.

But he knew that he might not be so lucky the next time. So he bought several hundred feet of fire hose, along with a nozzle and wrenches to open hydrants.

Just before the sun rose Tuesday, Crivello got the chance to use his equipment as the Witch fire began threatening the first house on his block.

For the next four hours, amid searing heat and thick smoke, he and two neighbors hitched the heavy hose line to the back of a truck, moving it from hydrant to hydrant as they battled to save their neighborhood.

"We knew we had to stop the flames from reaching our little valley," Crivello recalled Thursday.

The three neighbors each had their reasons for standing their ground. One knew that fire crews were stretched thin and that somebody had to hold the line. Another didn't want to leave the dream home he had recently built. And one came back to help when he heard that his friend had stayed behind.

After the fire tore through High Valley, more than two dozen homes were gone. Many of them, on spacious lots with sweeping hilltop views, were marked only by chimneys standing like watchtowers amid piles of smoldering rubble.

"The most tragic thing is we knew a lot of these people," said Mike Perry, 46, who fought the fire alongside Crivello, 43. "It's depressing."

Crivello had recently moved into his 4,500-square-foot home when the Cedar fire broke out in October 2003. That blaze burned in a horseshoe pattern on the fringes of the valley but never reached his neighborhood.

Vowing to be prepared, he bought 600 feet of 2 1/2 -inch fire hose, the type of line that firefighters use to blast large volumes of water on structure fires.

Even though he had the hose, Crivello and his wife decided to leave their home with their three children Sunday evening after hearing about the fast-moving Witch fire.

He said he didn't want to go but did so because of the children, who range from 6 to 13 years old.

By Monday morning, Santa Ana winds were pushing the fire toward High Valley.

Around 10 a.m., a San Diego County Sheriff's Department cruiser drove through the neighborhood, warning residents to leave.

Perry told his wife and three children that they had to go. But he decided to stay behind, even if it meant battling flames with just his garden hose.

"I knew there would be absolutely no fire support," he said. "They were stretched too thin."

Monitoring the fire at a relative's home in Mission Hills, Crivello got a call from a neighbor, who told him Perry had stayed behind.

"That was all I needed to hear," Crivello said. "I just got my butt back there."

Unknown to Crivello and Perry, their neighbor John Pasenelli also had decided to stay put with his wife.

The couple had moved into their custom 4,000-square-foot home a year earlier and refused to leave.

Pasenelli, 46, said he and his wife slept in shifts Monday night. The orange glow from the fire, meanwhile, grew bigger and brighter.

About 5:30 a.m. Tuesday, the blaze began gobbling up homes on the ridge above Pasenelli's home.

He was asleep wearing short pants and a baseball cap. He had laid out a pair of heavy jeans and a long-sleeve shirt to don in case he had to fight the fire.

But he never had a chance to change.

His wife woke him up, saying the fire was burning the brush behind their home. He put on his shoes and ran outside.

A mass of embers swirled around as he used a garden hose to knock down spot fires in his yard.

Half a block down the street, Crivello and Perry had hooked up the fire hose to a hydrant and were spraying themselves down because the heat was so intense.

Both men were wearing tennis shoes, T-shirts and shorts.

"I felt like the hair was singeing on my legs," Crivello said.

Noticing the spot fires around Pasenelli's home, the two men tied the hose to Crivello's truck and raced toward their neighbor's property.

Teaming up with Pasenelli, they beat back the flames.

"We just started doing what we had to do," Perry said.

But the fight had just begun.

Down the block and partially up the ridge, a neighbor's garage was beginning to burn.

The three men unhooked the hose and used the truck to move it near the garage and a two-story house on the property.

If the garage and house went up in flames, they said, so would the neighborhood.

As they poured water on the burning structure, a propane tank on the property above exploded as flames devoured what had once been a grand home.

"It was an incredible whoosh . . . like spontaneous combustion," Crivello recalled. "It was absolutely amazing."

They eventually lost the garage, but they were able to save the house.

For the next couple of hours, they protected about half a dozen homes.

They eventually were joined by a fourth neighbor, Jerry Carrier.

Throughout it all, they kept hosing themselves down and took turns on the nozzle. "It was so hot, and the smoke was so bad you had to pass the nozzle to the next guy," Perry said.

About 10 a.m. Tuesday, fire crews arrived and provided the muscle that the men needed to stop their block from going up in flames. Looking back, all three said they had made the right decision and would do it again.

They did, however, concede that they would do one thing differently the next time: "Our next purchase is going to be some [protective] fire gear," Crivello said.