What Do You Save From a House Full of Memories?

Times Staff Writer

Their house would collapse in a smoking ruin, and tears would stain their faces for hours afterward, but at least they had the family pictures.

“That was all we took,” Miguel Mejia, a security guard in his 30s, said as he wiped his eyes.

On Sunday afternoon, he and his companion, Carmen Romero, sat in their Toyota 4-Runner across the street from what remained of their hilltop home above Claremont. Embers still blew off the gutted structure. The melted hulk of Romero’s Lexus looked like it was fused to the driveway.

The couple had fled Saturday night with their two children, 14 and 3, when a wildfire charged up the canyon behind their home.


“Just the pictures,” said Romero, her voice trailing off to a sob.

Throughout the multi-front fire zone, hundreds of Southern Californians confronted the same panicky predicament -- which possessions to scoop up in mid-evacuation -- and pictures seemed the first choice.

If there had been time to hustle out anything else, it was likely to be another keepsake: Love letters from half a century ago. Leftover wedding invitations. A potted redwood sapling from the forest where a father’s ashes had been scattered.

The practical-minded also managed to bundle up insurance policies, mortgage documents, birth certificates and wills, even unpaid bills.


“We got all our pictures, and then some important documents and our suitcases,” said Jill Evans, 36.

She was balancing her year-old daughter on her hip in the gymnasium at Claremont High School, where the American Red Cross set up a shelter Sunday. Her 4-year-old son clung to his father, Joe Evans. The family had 15 minutes to leave their Padua Hills home in Claremont.

“We actually played this game last year,” said Joe Evans, 43, referring to a near-evacuation when a brush fire threatened the neighborhood. “So we had all the pictures boxed up.”

The trove of images now filled much of their SUV. There were shots from a Hawaii vacation and a scrapbook of ancestral pictures dating to the 19th century.


And they had plastic storage bins stuffed with framed squiggles and swatches -- their son’s school paintings -- and a couple of his toy cars and some clothes.

“Oh, and you know what? I also grabbed all our wedding stuff,” said Joe Evans. He listed the old invitations, the ceremonial candles and the bride’s veil. “It was in the garage.”

His wife beamed: “You get big kudos for that!”

They thought about what they might have missed. “One thing I wish I did pick up in our son’s room ... " Jill said.


“His rosary?” Joe said, finishing her sentence. “I got that.”

But he didn’t get the cross that was a gift to their daughter from her godfather. “I blew that one,” he said.

The Evans’ neighbor, Martha Paglia, also inventoried what was left behind. “All night I was thinking. I was going through the house in my mind,” she said.

The low-slung, largely glass-walled home is a creation of famed architect Richard Neutra. Martha’s husband of 43 years, Domingo, is an architect who once worked with him.


They said losing the 1959 house would have been a tragedy, but not on the order of losing their pictures. The Paglias fled with 4,000 slides and photos of themselves, their children and their friends.

“It’s all of our life,” said Domingo Paglia, 70.

Among the belongings he had left to the fire’s mercy were his own paintings and fabric collages, brightly colored works that adorn the walls.

That wasn’t what nagged, however, as they waited out the evacuation at a friend’s house.


“I was thinking about pictures of my mom,” Martha Paglia said. They were not with the 4,000.

She did remember to take her and her husband’s wills, and the letters they had exchanged during their courtship.

The couple returned Sunday to find their house in good shape, although the fire had burned right to the patio, scorching the back garden. Next door, the Evans’ home also had had a narrow escape; a pile of lumber at the edge of the yard was smoldering.

“It was so close,” said Domingo Paglia.


Delores Doty and Lisa Tessari felt the same way. The mother and daughter, with Tessari’s 12-year-old son in tow, hurried from their La Verne home early Sunday morning.

“You think of all these things, and there’s no way in the world you can gather up everything that means something to you,” said Doty, 73. “You just have long enough to grab your clothes and run around in circles.”

Doty took her baby book. Tessari ran out with the potted tree, the memorial to her father, who died in August. His ashes had been spread over a redwood grove near Crescent City.

The family spent much of Sunday sitting in Doty’s 1989 BMW below Live Oak Canyon, waiting for the all-clear. Their two cats were in travel cages in the back seat.


Just last week, Tessari and her son had moved back to La Verne from Alberta, Canada. Many of their possessions were still in shipping boxes.

The three had to fit everything in the BMW trunk. So they collected insurance policies, mortgage documents, birth certificates and the month’s bills -- and what they knew they couldn’t live without.

“I got pictures,” she said. “Pictures of my dad.”