O.C. fire victims get anonymous $1-million gift

An anonymous donor gave $1 million to a local relief fund Tuesday to help victims of Orange County's Santiago fire rebuild their homes and lives.

"I got the e-mail at noon," said Bob Hunt, vice president of the Inter-Canyon League, which set up the Santiago Fire Relief Fund to help the tight-knit canyon communities harmed in the fires. "I don't tear up very often, but I had trouble seeing the keyboard to type a thank-you reply."

"Oh my God. That's amazing," said Diane Carter on being told the news.

The Santiago fire forced Carter and her husband, Jim, to flee their dome-shaped house near the top of twisting Modjeska Grade Road. The home burned to the ground.

The couple, who own an equestrian-products store in San Juan Capistrano, are eager to rebuild as soon as they can get the plans and money together.

They hope to build a fireproof home, including, if county planners will allow it, a 360-degree lookout so they can keep watch for any future blazes.

"This year Christmas came before Thanksgiving," Jim Carter said Tuesday.

The money will be awarded by the Inter-Canyon League to about a dozen families who lost their homes in the blaze, and possibly to another dozen whose homes sustained severe damage.

The Santiago blaze scorched more than 28,000 acres in the Santa Ana Mountains over three weeks. Authorities believe the fire was set by an arsonist Oct. 21, at the height of raging Santa Ana winds.

Other displaced residents include a family of five and the organizer of the canyons' fire prevention efforts and his wife.

"I'm in shock. I mean, I'm in shock," said Candy Cain, who has been living with her husband, a grown son and a teenage son in a friend's small home in Orange since their rental house burned.

She and others said their greatest hope was that they could scrape together enough money to either rebuild or buy new homes in Modjeska, Silverado or Williams canyons.

Cain's son, Korey Chard, 17, said that although he misses his snowboards and a giant set of moose antlers -- not to mention all his clothes -- he has no doubt about what tops his wish list.

"I just want a home. There's a lot of things I do want, but that's No. 1 -- just a place that I can call home."

Phil McWilliams, who has run the canyons' fire safety council -- organizing brush-clearance days and emergency e-mail lists, among other efforts -- has been extremely discouraged after talking with his insurance company and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials, who said they couldn't cover roughly $500,000 in rebuilding costs. He and his wife lost their hillside home two days after the fire began.

"I was underinsured," he said. "This might make the difference in whether we stay in the canyon and rebuild, or whether we'll be leaving."

McWilliams, who has lived at the rural eastern edge of the county for more than 20 years, said of the donor, "This truly shows the solidarity of the canyons."

Inter-Canyon League President Deborah Johnson said that before Tuesday the group had received a little more than $5,500 in cash donations to help Santiago fire victims, including about $800 in coins from an elementary school. Canyon neighbors raised $6,000 in a T-shirt drive and are holding a fundraiser concert Saturday at the Silverado Community Center.

Johnson said that when she heard that someone was considering a large gift, "I dared to dream of $100,000 . . . not $1 million. . . . In a tragedy like this, with so much heartache and pain, it just breaks open your heart for an individual to show this much compassion."

Many longtime residents said they had a good idea who is giving the money: a Newport Beach multimillionaire who shuns publicity and owns land in the rugged canyons.

Community fundraisers declined to reveal the donor's name, at his request.

"It's definitely someone who knows and loves the canyons," Hunt said.

Whoever it is, McWilliams said, "It's an amazing gift and an example of the great solidarity in the canyons."