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Flames, Fear and Flight

Times Staff Writer

As she guided a van packed with clothes and dogs around a dark curve in Bell Canyon, Ellen Statham saw a row of million-dollar homes cast in an angry orange.

Flames leaped from a nearby ridge.

“My God,” she said. “It just takes your breath away.”

It was 2 a.m. Thursday, and Statham had left her gated subdivision hours before. Like so many in the path of the massive Topanga fire, she had taken to heart the horrific images of those trapped by Hurricane Katrina. She knew the only rational choice was to get out if you could, and right now -- even with the regrets that might come later.

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Her neighbors and other residents throughout the massive burn area handled their sudden, forced relocation in their own ways.

Interior designer Karen Lebens ambled around the Red Cross shelter at Canoga Park High School with her parrot, Thor, on her shoulder.

“You fill the back of your truck with whatever,” she said. “The rest of the stuff you have is stuff you didn’t need and shouldn’t have bought.”

Workers had just finished building a 1,600-square-foot wood deck at Lebens’ house, which she is renting out beginning Saturday to allow for an extended stay in her native New York. “At least I think I’m renting it,” she joked. “Whatta you gonna do?”

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At Jerry’s Famous Deli on Ventura Boulevard, Jay and Linda Lewitt were glued to TV news reports about the fire threatening Agoura Hills, their home since 1989.

Linda had snagged the wedding and bar mitzvah albums but fretted that she had left their ketubah, a decorative Jewish marriage contract, hanging on the wall.

She said that Katrina had prompted her to start an emergency kit but that she had only gotten as far as a manual can opener. “No cans,” she added.

In Bell Canyon, Statham thought she was ready for anything.

Earlier that night, she had loaded her dogs, Dottie and Cocoa, into the van, along with a few days’ worth of dog food. She had shuttled her 5-year-old son, Max, to a friend’s house, where he would be safe. But for all her attention to safety, she returned to her neighborhood later that night, face-to-face with the inferno.

“I can’t explain it,” she said. “I just really feel like being close to home.”

Statham had been a stuntwoman for 17 years before taking up motherhood full time. Her husband, traveling in Europe, was in the business as well. When flames licked at Bell Canyon two years ago, they left -- but in their own time.

“Everybody kind of strolled out then,” she said. “This time there was almost a traffic jam at the gate. Everyone on my block was packing their stuff and leaving at about the same time.”

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Hours later, a knot of uneasy neighbors tried to persuade officers to let them return to their homes. It seemed the only thing spreading faster than flames were rumors.

“I heard it was like Pompeii up there,” said R.V. Rivkin, who bought a home in the neighborhood in December. “People crying, houses exploding.”

Statham was among those who felt they had to get back home. Her entreaties had little effect on the police officers at the barricade on Bell Canyon Road, until she told them -- twice -- about the thyroid pills she’d left behind. They relented.

When Statham made it up the hill, there was nothing exploding. Firefighters were platooned outside the homes closest to the blaze. The streets were silent, empty but for a woman who was looking up at the reddening sky.

“My husband didn’t want to leave,” the woman said, with resignation.

Statham’s house was untouched. She grabbed her pills. Then she decided to take a computer filled with family photos, and a big portrait of Max.

“I’m happy now,” she said. “I can do this.”

On the way down, the reluctant evacuee sought out Rivkin’s house. She let him know that it stood. “Thank you,” he said.

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