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Residents of Sylmar mobile home park line up to survey fire-ravaged community

Hundreds of evacuees from Oakridge Mobile Home Park began lining up at Sylmar High School evacuation center before 9 a.m. today to board police vans for a first look at their fire-ravaged community.

Police are restricting access to the park because it is still considered a crime scene, closed to the public after the Sayre fire destroyed 477 of its 608 homes.

Residents whose homes were still standing were allowed to sign up Sunday night for van rides. Police then divided the hundreds who signed up into groups, allowing the first few in each group to board four 12-seat vans and enter the park.

The first van entered about 9:30 a.m., driven by police and evacuation center staff. Each van made 10-minute stops at groups of houses so residents could hurry inside with flashlights to retrieve wallets, medications, birth certificates and clothes.

Later, vans began ferrying residents whose homes were destroyed into the park, although they were not allowed to sift through the ashes.

As residents rode through, they passed sobering sights: homes reduced to ash, a coroner’s team of investigators and cadaver dogs searching for bodies (none were found as of this afternoon), the park’s pool black with soot, melted cars, charred cedar trees, broken water mains and signs already warning of unlicensed contractors.

Several “for sale” signs remained outside homes that had not burned, although the sales office burned, along with the recreation center and library.

“It’s amazing, it’s a miracle,” one man said after he found his home still standing and borrowed a police flashlight to retrieve clothes because there was no power in the park.

Deborah Midelton, 60, a retired inventory analyst for Bristol Meyers, found her house standing but badly damaged.

“My bedroom was all gone, so I could not get anything out of there,” she said as she left.

Firefighters had broken through the back bedroom closet and a nearby window to take a stand against the fire as it burned through the back of the home Midelton shared with her 29-year-old son. Both had lived at the park for 2 1/2 years and were evacuated before the fire went into their home. They were unharmed.

“This is the closest I’ve been to a war zone,” Midelton said as she retrieved her arthritis medication and surveyed the damage to the house next door. It was leveled, although the red rose bushes were untouched by flames. Nearby, an elderly neighbor embraced a firefighter before heading inside to retrieve two oxygen tanks.

Midelton lost about half her photographs to water and smoke but saved the brass candlesticks that her grandmother used in Friday Jewish observances.

“They survived the second war and now this,” she said.

As she returned to the evacuation center, she said she had “mixed emotions.” Oakridge was a close community, and she knew all of her neighbors from bunko and bingo games. She had already bought her $12 ticket for the park’s annual Thanksgiving dinner in the rec hall.

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

Back at the high school after the van ride, Midelton chatted with neighbors waiting for the next van. She said she was not sure whether she would return and rebuild, especially given the state of the economy and her diminishing retirement account.

“I’ll have to see what they offer. Am I going to have to worry about fires again?” she said, adding, “Then again, where do you go in California, with the prices.”

She wiped her hands together, brushing off soot, and smiled.

“I took some of the house with me,” she said.

About 100 residents were still waiting to board vans this afternoon, and some complained that authorities should have brought in buses or more vans so they could see their homes sooner.

Neighbor Judith Napolitano, 65, was still waiting to board a van at noon, hoping to retrieve some medication for her husband, Arnold Napolitano, 75, a retired banker. She was curious about what was left standing, asking Midelton about what she had seen.

Napolitano, who used to work in the park’s sales office but was laid off in July, said many of her neighbors are elderly people living on fixed incomes who owned their homes and cannot afford to rebuild. Although her home survived, she does not plan to return. The fire unsettled her husband, who is ailing.

“He wouldn’t deal well with that happening more than once,” Napolitano said as she boarded a van.

Earlier today, fire officials were still investigating what caused the Sayre fire. Although they had questioned several individuals in connection with an arson investigation, no arrests had been made today and fire officials had not determined whether the fire was intentionally set, said Los Angeles Fire Capt. Bill Wick.

Jody Miller, 57, said her home survived the fire, but her sister Teri Wagoner, 64, was not so lucky.

“She is breaking down quite a bit during the day,” Miller said as she waited to board a van this afternoon.

The family had received no aid from their insurer or from the Red Cross, Miller said. They paid for their stay at a nearby hotel and new clothes with credit cards.

“We are desperately waiting for FEMA,” Miller said.

Wagoner’s husband, Tom Wagoner, was looking for sifting screens this afternoon so he could search for valuables once he made it back into the park. He had no desire to take a van ride in if he could not walk on his property.

“I can see from the freeway,” he said.

Despite the destruction and the wait, Wagoner said he hoped to move back to Oakridge.

“Why not?” he said, “It’s our home.”

Police said they had searched about 80% of the park by this afternoon, expected to finish later today and could open the park back up during the next few days.

Hennessy-Fiske is a Times staff writer.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com


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