Chaos erupts from pair of blazes

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Anton, Goffard and Tran are Times staff writers.

Their neighborhood was deserted. The sky had turned dark, and the sun in the west was nothing but a red orb. Yet, Gene and Mary Palmer, both dressed in formal attire, were walking two miles from their Yorba Linda home to Anaheim Hills, where they had left their car earlier in the day.

Come smoke, wind and fire, they were determined to make it to their daughter’s wedding in Long Beach.

“My goodness, I’ll never forget this,” said Mary, dressed in a short black dress and six-inch heels, walking past burning palm trees in an empty car dealership lot. “I don’t know what I’ll look like or smell like when I get there. But I’m a fan of Lucille Ball, and this is so Lucy.”


The Palmers made it to the wedding Saturday. But others had their lives upended as two fires raged through northern Orange County and western Riverside County, destroying or damaging more than 100 residences.

As of Saturday evening, 16 homes had been burned in Corona, 30 in Yorba Linda and 50 luxury apartments as well as 10 homes in Anaheim Hills, firefighters reported. In Brea, no homes were destroyed but a building was severely damaged at Brea Canyon High School.

Throughout the day, fast-moving flames forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents and closed freeways, creating a surreal and chaotic scene as some residents tried to flee and others tried to get home.

On the Foothill-Eastern tollway, marooned motorists had to abandon their cars and walk out of the area. Directional signs along the 91 Freeway were ablaze. Even evacuation centers had to be evacuated.

On Golden Ridge Drive in Corona, Gordon Henson, 55, and his wife, Keely, lost their home of 21 years and two cats, Fluffy and Princess.

Henson was in his home office when he smelled smoke about 9:30 a.m. and ventured outside. His neighborhood was engulfed in a thick black blanket of smoke.


“People said go, so we left. Some people stayed and hosed their houses down,” Henson said. “They still have their houses. I wasn’t about to take that chance. The smoke was too thick.”

Before leaving, Henson grabbed his cat carrier and tried to coax Fluffy and Princess inside, but they scurried under a bed.

“I couldn’t get them in the carrier,” he said. “I could have chased them for two hours around the house.”

Henson and his wife returned to their home in the afternoon.

Standing beneath a gaping hole in the roof, amid the charred remains of the living room and melted fixtures, Henson said, “Everything is destroyed.”

Henson found Fluffy and Princess shortly after returning. They had choked on smoke. He gave their bodies to a passing animal control officer.

The speed of the Corona fire caught residents like Mike Goff, 50, off guard.

Goff said his wife called him about 9 a.m. and warned him that there was a fire in an aqueduct about a mile from their home. Goff and his son went outside to water their home when they noticed that a palm tree in front of the house was ablaze.


When Goff climbed a 10-foot ladder to extinguish the burning tree, he noticed his next-door neighbor’s house was burning.

Not far away, Bob Klein, 53, slumped on a sidewalk in front of a neighbor’s smoldering house on Alder Creek Road, watching as firefighters hacked into the burning garage to salvage what was left of the home.

“It just went so fast you didn’t even have time to think,” Klein said.

He had been up for hours watering his home. When he moved into the Santa Ana Canyon house 21 years ago, there was nothing but dirt roads.

Every year, when he saw smoke in the Santa Ana Mountains, he would dutifully pull out his garden hoses to make sure he was prepared. But those fires never approached the neighborhood. On Saturday, he was startled to see that homes down the street from his were aflame.

“This is what really scares me,” he said. “Not earthquakes. It’s these fires that will kill people around here.”

By the afternoon, the Corona fire had spread to Yorba Linda, where a wall of flames about 20 feet high descended from Chino Hills State Park into an upscale neighborhood of two-story homes around San Antonio Road.


Smoke and ash filled the air. Winds gusted through the streets at more than 50 mph. Palm trees that had burst into flames looked like giant tiki torches along San Antonio.

As fire crews pulled equipment from their trucks, Roger Cook stood in his front yard, watering down the landscape with a garden hose. His Dodge Caravan was parked in the driveway, ready to go at a moment’s notice.

A fire, Cook said, had never come this close to his home in the 17 years he has lived there. He vowed to defend his property until he could no longer stop the flames.

After the blaze spread across Santa Ana Canyon and jumped the 91 Freeway, flames boiled into the Cascades luxury apartment complex in Anaheim Hills.

Out of the 250 units, at least 50 apartments, which rent for up to $2,000 a month, were destroyed or damaged.

The complex’s leasing office was gutted.

The grounds of the Cascades were eerily quiet. Most residents had left.

Up the hillside, Abraham Velasco was trying to put out spot fires with a shovel, tossing dirt and hammering it with the spade. Ron Couzens, a neighbor, dragged a hose down the hill, trying to keep the earth damp.


Meanwhile, Cheryl Hoffman, a Los Angeles County firefighter, walked nearby, carrying two small dogs -- a Jack Russell and a terrier-poodle mix.

She looked exhausted. The dogs were dripping wet. She carried the animals, which she had rescued from an apartment, to an air-conditioned van from Orange County Animal Control.

“When I opened the door, there they were, just crouching down on the floor. Sometimes they hide, but these two came right to me,” she said, depositing the dogs in the van. “Maybe they knew I was an animal lover.”



Times staff writers Dan Weikel, Tami Abdollah, Brady MacDonald and James Wagner contributed to this report.