It was early Friday morning, the sun was just coming up in the Simi Hills and 60-year-old Bell Canyon resident Laurita Gallagher was screaming to her family that it was time to leave.
Gallagher and her husband had woken up every two hours to check the Woolsey fire’s progress. Her son, Payson, 24, didn’t sleep, instead watching the fire. They had packed their belongings and were ready to evacuate.
The Gallagher family knew that if the fire crossed over a ridgeline near their Tudor-style five-bedroom home, they would need to leave. They didn’t realize how quickly that would happen.
At 5:30 a.m. Friday, the Gallaghers got a warning from the homeowners association that the fire was spreading fast. Soon, tall deeply orange flames were chewing through timber near their home. Before the family could get into their cars, the fire had already made it to their driveway. Gallagher’s niece Marisa was last in the caravan of cars, and as she left, burning branches were hitting her vehicle’s hood.
“It happened so quickly,” Gallagher said. “The wind was blowing 40 mph, there were embers flying everywhere — our eyes were burning, and we couldn’t keep them open. We tried to put our shirts up against our faces, mostly fearing some embers were going to fall on us. Just the intensity of the heat on our faces and body was almost blistering.”
Bell Canyon was one of the many upscale hillside neighborhoods in which the Woolsey fire swept through, indiscriminately destroying some of the sprawling homes while sparing others.
An unknown number of homes was lost in the gated community on the western edge of the San Fernando Valley. Some residents followed the evacuation orders and fled; others stayed and tried to save their homes.
Eugene Karpus, 59, and a handful of neighbors worked as a team to defend their corner of Bell Canyon on Friday.
Karpus, a psychiatrist, worked with neighbors — including a medical courier, a neighbor who recently had brain surgery and a financial officer who works at a local university — using shovels, axes and water hoses. Through determination, none of their homes burned.
Karpus said it didn’t seem like there were enough firefighters in the area when the blaze began.
“There definitely wasn’t enough manpower,” he said. “They cannot be everywhere.”
Karpus’ logic for staying was simple: “Obviously, all big fires start with a small [one],” he said.
The team reunited Saturday for breakfast to recount their efforts and get to know each other better.
Like many who live in Bell Canyon, Gallagher appreciates how serene and quiet the community is. Living in Bell Canyon is like living in a lush wilderness that blocks out the city nearby. But being in the middle of that open space becomes a danger when fires hit.
Before evacuating, the Gallaghers sprayed down their house and yard with water, but they wanted to do more.
The home survived, but the fire burned their barn and the steep hillside behind their house.
The family moved to Bell Canyon two years ago, and the home is already full of memories. Gallagher has an “open house” policy to friends and family. She’s a caterer, and they know when they visit, she’ll always have great food for them. The home is where the family gathers during the holidays. Around Christmas, there are at least 60 people in the home. That’s why she and so many other residents felt compelled to defend their homes.
“We all just have to stick together as a community and try to rebuild it and support each other,” Gallagher said.
She has survived floods and earthquakes, but the Woolsey fire shook her in a way she had never experienced.
“You can’t even explain how you feel and how your nerves get shot, and [in the moment] you really can’t think of anything other than just to save your life,” she said.