12 killed in Cedar fire had no warning

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

LAKESIDE, Calif. -- At least 12 people killed this week in Southern California wildfires were from two rural San Diego County neighborhoods that survivors said received no warning from authorities.

When the Cedar fire reached residents here early Sunday, they had only minutes to flee. A dozen died -- some in cars, some huddled in homes and others trying to run for safety.

Eight victims lived along a series of dirt roads just outside the Barona Reservation. Neighbors told The Times on Wednesday that the dead included a 17-year-old high school student, her mother and the teenager’s aunt, whose skeleton was found in a bathtub along with the bones of her dog.

“We feel really lucky,” said Lonnie Bellante, who escaped with his wife and 11- and 13-year-old daughters. Four of his tenants and four of his neighbors died. “We got out with the most valuable thing, which is each other. The rest of it is not important.”

Four people died in Lake View Hills Estates, a gated 10-home community a few miles west. Lakeside fire officials said they reached the entrance to the neighborhood about 3 a.m. Sunday, but were ordered to retreat before getting a chance to warn residents of the coming firestorm. Five homes also burned.

The fast-moving Cedar fire, sparked by a lost hunter Saturday afternoon, caught fire officials by surprise as it moved west about 15 miles from the Cleveland National Forest.

A spokesman for the reservation said the Barona fire station was notified of the fire about 2 a.m. Sunday by a California Department of Forestry battalion chief. He told the firefighter on duty that the fire would be passing through in 20 minutes, said Dave Baron, director of government affairs.

Baron said the fire station notified the reservation’s casino and some nearby residents, but did not have time to notify Bellante and his neighbors.

Jon Smalldridge, who was spending the weekend at his parents’ home near Bellante, said Wednesday that only the persistent barking of his dog gave him and his house guests enough time to escape the fire’s path.

It also gave him a chance to save some of his neighbors.

Smalldridge, 42, of Arcadia, and his 18-year-old son, Shawn, had come to relax in country thick with trees and boulders. Smalldridge and his son spent Saturday riding motorcycles and target shooting. Jon Smalldridge’s parents were away.

On Saturday evening, the Smalldridges watched the distant glow of the Cedar fire that had begun hours earlier in the Cleveland National Forest. Neither one worried, and they went to bed tired.

The dog’s barking woke the household about 1:30 a.m. Sunday. Outside, the smoke was thick.

Smalldridge drove to neighboring homes to warn residents. One of them was Molly Sloan, a family friend and a grandmother, who didn’t want to go. She had bought her 14-acre ranch 28 years ago. Her property had four houses -- family members lived in three and renters occupied the fourth.

Smalldridge rounded up Sloan’s three dogs -- Sasha, a boxer; Freckles, a mutt; and Osa, a lab -- and loaded them into Sloan’s car. Then Smalldridge helped Molly Sloan into her car.

Mary Peace, Molly Sloan’s daughter, followed in her own car. As they drove away, Mary Peace decided to check on neighbors and turned off the road.

Then Smalldridge, who owns an auto repair shop in Pasadena, and his son took off in their pickup. A car was stopped ahead. It was Molly Sloan’s. Flames engulfed the road, 15 to 30 feet high, he said, whipped by 40-mph Santa Ana winds. Smalldridge slammed his foot on the brakes. He could not see inside Sloan’s car.

“Dad, you gotta go. We gotta go. There is nothing you can do,” Shawn told his father.

Smalldridge jammed his foot on the accelerator and sliced through a wall of flames. He couldn’t see the road ahead. “I was driving by Braille,” he said.

They reached a gas station by the Barona casino, and the firestorm surged past.

“We stayed in the car and watched the whole hillside go up,” Smalldridge said. “Knowing there were still people who couldn’t get out was pretty difficult. There was nothing more we could do.”

After escaping the inferno, Jon Smalldridge at dawn agonized over whether to return to his neighborhood. He worried about Molly Sloan. But he also worried about exposing his son to a gruesome sight.

Smalldridge prayed. Then he turned the key in the ignition.

“I was mentally prepared for what I saw; I prepared myself to come back,” Smalldridge said. “I ... was willing to accept the worst. Knowing there wasn’t going to be any medical personnel, I prepared myself to help them.”

As he approached the cluster of homes, Smalldridge drove up to a charred Toyota. The left front wheel was in a ditch. A skeleton sat in the passenger seat, with the remains of a dog by its feet. Twenty feet away, Smalldridge found another body.

“I knew it wasn’t going to be pretty,” Shawn Smalldridge said. “I just prayed that it was quick for them."A downed power pole blocked the road, and the Smalldridges continued on foot. They saw a blackened car in a field. A woman’s body lay sprawled 30 feet in front of the car.

It was Galen Blacklidge, who lived with her husband a few houses away from Jon Smalldridge’s parents.

At 6 a.m., Smalldridge met up with Lonnie Ballante. Ballante, his wife and two daughters had followed the same route as Smalldridge, but the fire turned them back. The engine quit and they had to leave their truck. Ballante’s wife suffered the worst burns, with the flesh coming off her arms. Smalldridge drove the family to get help.

Molly Sloan had survived, having followed Smalldridge. Her daughter, Mary Peace, did not. Peace had turned off the road to check on neighbors. Minutes later, her escape was apparently cut off by flames. The 54-year-old former nurse must have returned to her house, speculated Mike Parsons, a relative of Sloan.

Relatives later found Mary Peace’s remains in a bathtub. With her were the remains of her Chihuahua.

Nearby, in another house on the Sloan family compound, they found the remains of 17-year-old Jenifer Sloan, Parsons said. Her mother, Robin, is missing and presumed dead. Robin Sloan had worked at a nearby Wal-Mart. She had driven to the trailer of her former husband to warn him, family and friends said.

He was already gone, but Robin stayed to pack mementos, they said. Then, they believe, she drove back up to her house.

Jenifer Sloan, an El Capitan High School student, remained waiting at the house.

As the fire bore down, Jenifer was on the phone trying to wake neighbors. She also called a friend who begged her to evacuate. She told the friend she would not leave without her mother.

“They all died trying to save someone’s life other than their own,” Parsons said. “They all had their own vehicles. They all could have left at any time. You might say it was a family of heroes.”


Times staff writer Nora Zamichow contributed to this report.