ESCONDIDO -- The howling Santa Ana winds may have saved Roger Bielasz’s life even as they threatened to end it.
Unable to sleep because of the wind’s racket, Bielasz got out of bed around 1 a.m. Monday and went to his window just in time to see flames shooting up to his hilltop home. Within minutes, the fire had surrounded his house, along with four others overlooking the San Pasqual Valley.
With no time to escape, Roger and his wife, Dena, did the only thing they could think of to survive: They jumped into their swimming pool, according to Roger’s daughter, Kimberly Miley. Wrapping wet towels around their heads to protect them from the fire’s heat, thick smoke and red-hot embers, the Bielaszes sitting on an underwater ledge in the pool for more than three hours shivering in the cold water as their home, just feet away, burned to the ground.
The plunge probably saved their lives.
Their next-door neighbors did not make it out of their house in time. Authorities confirmed Wednesday that the remains of two adults were found in the house next to the Bielaszes on Highland Valley Road.
A coroner’s official identified the victims as John Christopher Bain, 58, and Victoria Fox, 55. Neighbors said the couple were married and described them as happy, friendly folks. Bain worked in real estate and his wife was a schoolteacher, they said.
Sheriff’s deputies had gone to the couple’s house earlier in the week after receiving a missing persons report, but did not find any trace of them. During a second visit by a search and rescue team Wednesday, the remains were discovered.
A friend said the couple’s 20-year-old son was devastated.
Jerry Nicholas, Bain’s friend and personal attorney, said he had talked with his high-school buddy on the phone as the fire approached.
“He was very aware that he had to leave,” Nicholas said, adding that Bain was preparing to evacuate. “There was no indication that he had some plan to stick it out. He was ready to leave.”
Nicholas said Bain, a physically fit, 6-foot, 3-inch outdoorsman, must have been surprised by the speed of the fire.
“There is no reason to believe he was making any attempt to save the house. He is not a foolish person,” Nicholas said. “If anybody could have gotten out of there it would have been John. He was just that kind of guy.”
Jennifer Walters, superintendent of the Escondido Unified School District, described Fox as “a teacher who believed that all students could reach a higher level if given the right opportunities.”
Jon Centofranchi, Fox’s principal at Rincon Middle School, said she organized spelling bees and dramatic productions for the students. “She was very warm and caring, very mother-like to a lot of students,” he said. “They really felt comforted in her class.”
The fire demolished all five homes on the half-mile stretch of Highland Valley Road, which overlooks avocado and citrus groves and has views of the Wild Animal Park and the rugged peaks and valleys that surround it.
Like some others who live in homes ringing the San Pasqual Valley, the residents along Highland Valley Road said they received no evacuation order from authorities monitoring the Witch fire and got no “reverse 911" telephone calls. Although the telephone alerts have been widely praised, San Diego County Sheriff’s Department officials have acknowledged that some residences were overlooked during the crisis.
Jan Caldwell, a department spokeswoman, said she could not immediately determine whether the Highland Valley residents were warned.
“We’re going to have to go back and check. That’s still part of an active investigation,” Caldwell said. “We’re probably not going to be able to provide that information to you for some time.”
Roger Bielasz’s daughter said her father, 60, and stepmother, 51, believe they would have died if not for their pool. “This was the worst day of their lives,” Miley said.
She said that the couple were at a Del Mar hotel recovering from their ordeal and that they were deeply saddened by the deaths of the neighbors, which they learned about Wednesday.
Marion and Diane Rose, who live two doors down from the Bielaszes, said they too might have perished had a friend not awakened them with a phone call shortly before midnight to warn them of the approaching fire.
At first Marion, 67, didn’t want to get up. “I’m only going to get out of bed if I can see the flames,” he told his wife. Diane, 60, insisted. They scrambled to pack some belongings, like their Turkish rug and Belgian lace. Frantic and afraid, they snapped at each other as they hurried to load their two cars, grabbing their cat, Pippi, and their dog, Oso.
Finally ready to leave, and with little time to spare, Marion couldn’t find the car keys.
“I totally panicked,” Diane said. “I said, ‘God, I need help and I need it right now.’ ” Seconds later, she lifted up the cat carrier and found the keys underneath.
The Roses had completed painting their home that day, the last step in an extensive remodel. Hours later, it was destroyed in the blaze. But they said their loss was nothing compared to their neighbors’ loss of life.
“We knew that we made it out just in time,” Diane said. “We had no idea our neighbors wouldn’t make it out at all.”
Times researcher Vicki Gallay contributed to this report.