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Family escapes raging Silver fire as their home and pets burn

FiresAmerican Red Cross

In the early afternoon hours of Wednesday, Kymberley Heighes was at a friend’s house when she got an unnerving text message from her neighbor.

A photo showed a billowing wall of smoke bearing down on her Poppet Flats home near Banning.

As the Silver fire exploded -- it has so far consumed more than 10,000 acres and badly burned a local resident and injured four firefighters -- Heighes sprang into action.

“It wasn’t just normal smoke, I knew it was bad,” Heighes said. 

As the fire line rapidly expanded, Heighes, 50, and her 18-year-old son hopped into a vehicle and raced up the hill to her home, where two other children and a menagerie of pets -- including goats, ducks, 30 chickens and four dogs -- were waiting.

As they approached her home atop Ellis Drive, she could see the flames and smoke approaching and knew her house would burn.

“I fell apart. … I just drove and prayed,” Heighes said.

Heighes neared her house and saw her children in a car, escaping with a neighbor. Still, she begged them to help her save the animals.

They were only able to rescue two dogs and a pet rat. Even then, the winds were screaming and within minutes they were surrounded by smoke.

The flames were just 20 yards away from the house when firefighters told them they had to leave.

“By then, there was ash in the air, the smoke was all black, it was hard to breathe,” said Heighes’ 14-year-old daughter, Emily.

As of midday Thursday, the Silver fire had damaged or destroyed at least 15 structures, although officials could not confirm how many of those were homes. It had also injured four firefighters and sent one civilian to the hospital with "head to toe" burns.

Heighes said she and her neighbors got confirmation that their homes had not survived the wind-driven fire line when television news footage revealed their smoldering remains.

She had escaped a similar fate in 2006, when firefighters were able to beat back flames from the devastating Esperanza fire that had come within 10 feet of her home.

As the Silver fire continued to push east Thursday, firefighters were able to make some headway, hitting 10% containment. But the evacuation orders continued, extending into Black Mountain.

The fire broke out around 2 p.m. Wednesday and soon exploded into an uncontrolled blaze that moved quickly around Banning, sending more than 1,500 residents in mandatory evacuation zones fleeing.

Some of them were forced to "shelter in place" after the fire cut off exit paths.

In the frenzy, Heighes didn’t even have time to grab boxes of important documents and family photographs that she had prepared in advance after the Esperanza fire.

On Thursday, at the mostly empty Red Cross evacuation center in the gymnasium of Beaumont High School, she stood at an insurance agent’s table and broke down.

“I just can’t stop thinking about them. I care about my house, but my animals more,” Heighes said.

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