Eighteen people narrowly escaped from a Sunday morning fire that raced through their three-bedroom house in Simi Valley and forced the residents to toss children out of bedroom windows before clambering to safety.
None of the 18 people, including the 10 children, were hurt in the fire at 3258 Dalhart Ave. that erupted at 8:32 a.m. in a corner of the living room near a television set, fire officials said. But the fast-moving flames destroyed most of the house and its contents before firefighters brought the blaze under control.
"They started screaming that there was a fire," said resident Evedina Gutierrez. "We just got the kids and left."
Carlos Garcia said he and other residents were asleep when the fire erupted in the living room. He awakened, he said, to find smoke billowing into the room that he, his wife and their two young boys occupied.
"I threw the kids out the window," Garcia said, and then he and his wife scrambled out after them. "Smoke filled the whole room."
Many of the other residents followed, using bedroom windows to escape the fire, Garcia said. He said he turned on a garden hose in a futile effort to douse flames coming out of a bathroom window.
Although the house was equipped with smoke detectors, Ventura County Fire Capt. Mike Sandwick said they did not sound an alarm before the fire broke out. The 10 children, including two infants, would not have been able to escape without the help of adults, he said.
"In this type of fire, with a large amount of people in there, and with the smoke detectors not working, this could have been a tragedy," Sandwick said. The intense blaze caused about $65,000 in damage to the house and its contents, he said.
Fire investigation specialist Bill Hager said the cause of the blaze is still under investigation.
American Red Cross workers have moved the 18 residents to a motel in Simi Valley, where they will stay for three days until they can find other housing accommodations.
The residents, poor and barely able to speak English, said the fire has devastated their lives. "I don't have any work, and now I don't have anything," said Garcia, an unemployed house painter who paid $350 a month for his family to occupy one room of the house.
"They're wondering what's going to happen next," Red Cross volunteer Betty Jimenez said.
Some of the residents who later returned to the house to retrieve belongings picked through charred remains to salvage any clothes that they could take with them.
A thick smell of smoke permeated the air as residents packed their few remaining possessions in large plastic bags. But most of their belongings were destroyed or damaged by fire, smoke or water.
Four families and four male adults had lived in crowded conditions, sharing a kitchen and 2 1/2 bathrooms, Garcia said. Part of a two-car garage had been converted into another bedroom.
The house has been the source of complaints from neighbors about its numerous residents.
Jane Beerman, a next-door neighbor, said she has complained many times to the city about problems with trash, parking and cars that were abandoned by the many residents who lived at the house.
"It's all different families, they come and they go," Beerman said. "There's just so many. There's always 12 cars over there. I think who should be cited is the owner of the house."
Fire officials said the owners of the house were listed as Jack and Deborah Stotler and Jose Lopez, who is also a resident. All three were at the house Sunday surveying the remains.
Stotler denied that she has had problems with neighbors and has tried to keep the yard and the house free of trash. Her husband, Jack, scoffed at reports that 18 people were living in the home. He refused to answer any questions.
"There's been a fire in this house, and I'm very upset about that," Deborah Stotler said.
Jose Lopez was just as upset by the damage as his co-owners and other residents. "It's all gone," he said. "Everything that we worked for."