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Getty fire: Housekeepers and gardeners go to work despite the flames

Housekeeper Carmen Solano
Carmen Solano takes an Uber after finding out the neighborhood where she works has been evacuated in the Getty fire.
(Brittny Mejia / Los Angeles Times)

Carmen Solano didn’t know a brush fire had erupted Monday near the neighborhood where she worked. She simply left at 6 a.m. for her job cleaning a house on a street of multimillion-dollar homes.

Carrying a red backpack filled with tortillas, bananas, water and her lunch, Solano arrived at the North Robinwood Drive home in a taxi shared with other housekeepers.

“There’s a lot of smoke,” the driver said, as he dropped off the Guatemalan immigrant in the choking ash of the Getty fire. Normally, Solano works at the home on Wednesday, but the owner had asked her to come Monday.

Dressed in a pink sweater and pink sweatpants, she rang the doorbell over and over. No response. By her feet, a jack-o'-lantern grinned. As she waited at the front door, she realized she’d either left her phone on her dresser at home or in the taxi.

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Solano was stranded. Ash rained down, speckling her braided hair white.

I was the one who told her that the neighborhood was under a mandatory evacuation and offered her a ride out. But before we left, I tried another doorbell, part of a smart home system connecting to the resident’s cellphone. Solano hadn’t known how to use it.

Esta quemando todo,” the owner said in halting Spanish to Solano through the ringer. “Everything is burning.”

Police had ordered them to evacuate at 3 a.m., he told her.

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The streets were mostly empty throughout the neighborhood — except for the workers who tend the gardens, clean the hilltop homes and care for the children in one of the city’s most affluent communities.

An officer from the Los Angeles Police Department, who asked that his name not be used, said he had told at least 10 determined workers in the neighborhood to leave.

“For the most part it was evacuated. I’m driving around and I see people working,” he said. When he asked what they were doing, the laborers told him again and again: “I have to finish.”

“No sir, you can’t finish your yard. You’ve got to go,” he told them, adding “I saw their determination to finish the job.”

Solano’s employer asked if she had a ride home. I explained to him that I had offered to help. I told him that I would drive her to a main intersection and order an Uber to take her home.

He thanked me and said to Solano: “Lo siento, gracias por venir.” (I’m sorry, thanks for coming.)

He said he’d call and let her know if she should come back to work on Wednesday.

As I drove Solano out, she told me she has worked for the family for a month and a half, and she was worried about the loss of a day’s wages. She arrived from Guatemala 27 years ago and received asylum. But she doesn’t drive or speak English. She’d immigrated to the United States in the hopes of making enough money to bring her family, a goal she hasn’t accomplished.

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I parked and we walked down Bundy Drive toward San Vicente Boulevard to wait for her Uber. On the way, we bumped into Marcela Aquino, who was heading in the opposite direction, hoping to reach the house she cleans Monday through Friday. Like Solano, she was unaware of the Getty blaze when she left home.

As Aquino made her way to the home near Sunset Boulevard and Kenter Avenue in the mandatory evacuation zone, her boss called to say they had left.

Pobrecitos,” she said, expressing sympathy toward her boss, who has two children. I offered her the Uber with Solano, which she declined at first.

“I don’t want to miss work,” Aquino said. “They already gave me a week off.”

She asked if I would talk to her boss, who doesn’t speak Spanish well. She tried to call a couple of times, but no one answered.

“I should just go home,” Aquino said, who had seen two other housekeepers also walking to work that morning.

“They didn’t tell us,” she said. “They need to tell us not to come.”

On our walk to meet the Uber, we bumped into a construction worker who had also made it to the home where he was working. He saw the fire and decided to leave. Across the street, a baby-sitter covered her face with a paper towel, trying to shield herself from the ash.

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After a hug from Solano, I put the two women in the Uber and headed back up Bundy Drive to my car.

Ana Martinez walks through a neighborhood evacuated in the Getty fire on Monday.
Ana Martinez walks through a neighborhood that was evacuated in the Getty fire on Monday.
(Brittny Mejia)

Along the way I ran into Ana Martinez, 38, who had also showed up to her housecleaning job just as the residents were evacuating. They told her they wouldn’t need her Monday. Before she left, her boss gave her a mask.

As I paused to write, I spotted a man cutting grass in front of a nearby home as residents fled the neighborhood in their cars.

Chon Ortiz, 50, knew about the fire. He was stuck in traffic on his way into the neighborhood. The owners did not ask him to work, but he had three homes along this route.

“If they say I have to evacuate, I will,” he said in Spanish. “But I need to work.”

Another gardener, Teofilo López, 72, raked the leaves outside an evacuated home at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Kenter Avenue. He’s worked at this house for 40 years. Originally from the Mexican state of Jalisco, he said he argued with authorities over whether he could bring his truck in.

He ended up parking and walking to the house as authorities were busy blocking off the nearby road. He turned on the sprinklers, adjusting them to keep the grass well-watered. I asked him if he was scared with all the ash and smoke, and he threw up his hands.

“What can I do?” he said. “I need the money, I need to work.”

Angelica Mesinas walked a mile through falling ash up Kenter Avenue on Monday afternoon and reached the house she has cleaned for about eight years.

She had not heard from her boss and asked me how to text “Are you home?” in English. Soon, he responded and said, “No they evacuated me. Made us leave because of fires.”

I translated for the two of them.

“Please tell her with all the craziness I forgot to text her,” he said.

“Ask him if he wants me to clean his house or should I leave,” Mesinas said to me.

“No, no,” he said. “I’ll pay her for today.”

“Thank you,” she said to him on the phone. “Sorry.”


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