Reporter returns home from her wedding to a nightmare

A bittersweet relief
”...we know that fires are the hazard of living here. I guess it’s the price of admission.”
(Karen Tapia-Andersen / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Times staff writer Janet Wilson, who has lived in a creekside stone house in Modjeska Canyon in Orange County for nearly nine years, returned from her wedding Monday evening to find her home threatened by the Santiago fire. She gave this account to staff writer Tony Barboza as she reported on her close-knit canyon community that had burst into flames. Click here for the latest update.

I got married Saturday, and there’s a good chance my home was destroyed Tuesday.

I was married in a lakeside chapel in my mother’s small town in New Hampshire. It was fantastic. Two weeks ago, 40 of my women friends held a wedding shower in Modjeska Canyon. We sat out on my friend’s porch staring at the blue sky and beautiful chaparral-covered slopes that we all knew and loved so well. Tuesday, I saw that same area engulfed in 75-foot flames.

The good news is as far as I can tell, nobody has been hurt. Three of my neighbors were among the 12 firefighters who were required to deploy their emergency fire-retardant tents as flames overtook them Monday, but they also escaped injury.

My mom told me the day after the wedding that there were seven fires in Southern California. At first it seemed like my house would be OK, but each time I boarded another plane on my way home, I got increasingly disturbing messages on my cellphone about shifting winds and a change of direction in the fire.

As we flew into John Wayne Airport around 6:35 p.m., we tried to make out Santiago Peak and Modjeska Peak from the plane window. But we couldn’t see through the smoke and darkness.

Driving to Modjeska Canyon, we had to travel through thick smoke near Foothill Ranch and Portola Hills. But as we entered the canyon, the air was clear and even smelled sweet. I was relieved that my house was OK and my animals were out of there, thanks to my neighbors.

But then I heard the sheriff’s deputies calling for voluntary evacuations from their car loudspeakers. I looked out my side yard and saw the dull red glow getting brighter and brighter.

Just before we left, I leaned against the wall at the top of my stairs and stood still for a minute and quieted my mind. It’s a little ritual I do each time I go on a trip. Someone once told me this would allow me safe journey and protect my home.

Tuesday morning, I talked to two of my neighbors and grabbed quotes for the newspaper as they were fleeing their homes. I saw the head of the volunteer fire department standing by the side of the road, helpless because he couldn’t do anything.

It was an eerie experience as a reporter because we’re trained to observe and are often thrown into areas we don’t know. But I knew every inch of what I saw Tuesday. I know the hills and the houses. It’s an extraordinarily close-knit community.

We see it as our little bit of heaven away from all the rest of Southern California. And at the same time, we know that fires are the hazard of living here. I guess it’s the price of admission.

Now I’m on Santiago Canyon Road, which I’ve driven thousands of times.

The familiar view that has always made me feel safe and let me know that I’m home is blotted out by a gray and black cloud.

At 3:45 p.m. Tuesday, Wilson spotted her home, which was intact though not out of danger. She thought, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” and started to cry. Then she saw that the hillside in back of the house hadn’t burned, and she knew it wasn’t over yet.