Victims grappling with loss

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Hennessy-Fiske, Esquivel and Lozano are Times staff writers.

Calm winds delivered a much-needed respite Monday to exhausted firefighters and gave them the chance to gain the upper hand on wildfires still burning throughout Southern California.

But even as firefighters gained control, the damage toll climbed.

In Yorba Linda, the official tally of homes lost was placed at 113. And, for the first time, somber residents returned to the Oakridge Mobile Home Park in Sylmar -- the “Beverly Hills of mobile home parks” -- where they saw a devastated neighborhood that looked more like a war zone than a country club.

“The firefight is over,” said Marlene Heisey, an information officer with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to about 300 team commanders gathered at the Orange County command center. Later, in an interview, she said, Sunday “it was like a freight train coming through. That intensity has ended.”


Though they’re keeping a watchful eye on the wind and forecast, the Orange County Fire Authority’s Kris Concepcion said: “We have a good handle on things. We are now just making sure that everything in that fire area is cold.”

Fire officials reported more good news from the front lines. Firefighters achieved 95% containment of the 1,940-acre Tea fire, which started in Montecito on Thursday evening and damaged or destroyed 219 residences. The Sayre fire was 64% contained, and the Freeway Complex fire was 40% contained.

In all, 842 homes have been destroyed in the last several days, and more than 100 more damaged. The cause of the fires remains unknown.

“This has been a terrible, trying time for the families,” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said. “We’ve all seen the images on TV, but no one knows that better than the people who have lost their homes. No words can describe the size of this devastation. The truth is we haven’t seen a fire of this magnitude in decades.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger requested a federal emergency declaration for Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Santa Barbara counties to help offset the costs of the fires.

The flames and wind didn’t discriminate. Unhealthy air, ash and a smoky haze hung over the parts of Southern California the flames didn’t directly touch. In Yorba Linda, several of the homes lost were sprawling and expensive. In Sylmar, the mobile homes belonged to retired bus drivers, schoolteachers and people of more modest means.


In some cases, residents knew they had tempted fate by living in the path of Southern California’s dangerous Santa Ana winds.

Vas and Kusum Arora watched the firefighters hang yellow “do not enter tape” and a red tag in front of the rubble of their two-story home on Big Horn Mountain Way in Yorba Linda. It had taken them years to find the home with beautiful views overlooking Chino Hills State Park, said Vas Arora, 67.

The threat of fire always lingered.

“I used to love my house,” Kusum Arora, 61, said. “But even so, every time the winds came, we felt bad. We knew it was dangerous, the strong winds gusting up from the canyon. But I never thought it would actually happen.”

They looked at the skeleton of their million-dollar home, the withered palm tree, some mangled metal.

“It was our dream home,” Vas Arora said, “but it was always in the back of my mind.”

Mike Chene and his wife, Julienne, thought they had done everything they could to protect their Yorba Linda home.

Last year they cut a fire break on a nearby hill and installed ice plant to slow any potential burning.


When they returned Monday, 47 hours after evacuating, they found only their chimney standing.

“The fire just moved too fast,” Mike Chene said. “It was a mile and a half away, then 30 minutes later it was on us.”

Rummaging through the ashes, they found a domino game, a couple of unburned books and a Marine statue. As they stood in the ruins of their home, they joked and laughed; Julienne Chene wiped away an occasional tear.

“It comes in waves,” she said.

Even though there’s little left, the family asked neighbors to keep looters away. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll find something buried five layers down.

“I may find a ring,” Julienne Chene said.

In Sylmar, van loads of residents visited the blackened Oakridge Mobile Home Park, where about 500 homes burned to the ground. Cadaver dogs searched for remains Monday morning, but L.A. County coroner’s officials believed no one died.

In 10-minute escorted shifts, people with homes still intact rushed inside to grab documents and other small items they had left behind. The newly homeless could do little more than snap a few pictures and survey the damage.


“It’s devastating,” said preschool teacher Doreen Emerson, 59, shortly after seeing the remains of her home.

“You think you prepare yourself for what you see. Then everybody’s lives, their history, is just gone.”

Her husband, Gary Emerson, said it looked like a bomb exploded, “like you see in pictures of Hiroshima.”

Amid this scene, even the lucky ones didn’t feel so lucky.

Deborah Midelton, 50, a retired inventory analyst for Bristol Meyers, found her mobile home badly damaged but still standing.

She grabbed her arthritis medication and the brass candlesticks her grandmother used for Shabbat, a family heirloom Midelton said had survived “the second war and now this.”

“You’re thrilled your stuff survived,” Midelton said. “But you look around and your neighbors are gone. You want to cry.”






Times staff writers Tony Barboza, Jean Merl, Louis Sahagun, My-Thuan Tran, Ruben Vives, James Wagner and Kimi Yoshino contributed to this report.


More fire coverage

Lots of help: Volunteers responded quickly to the disaster. PAGE 8

Climate? No definite link is found between warming and region’s fires. PAGE 9



L.A. Now: Read dozens of dispatches from Los Angeles Times reporters on the scene at fire zones from Montecito to Yorba Linda, plus updates on the recovery effort, weather conditions, reader comments and more.


Maps: Understand the path of the flames and see breakdowns of where homes were lost in each of the fires.