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California

As firefight continues, ashes float like dirty snowflakes and firefighters serve breakfast to evacuated

Green cots lined the cafeteria at Hart High School on Monday, home to more than 40 people chased away by a fire that churned smoke and ash across Southern California like a giant factory and turned the moon and sun an otherworldly orange and red. 

Around 7 a.m., a few people tried to sleep in, covering their faces with white Red Cross blankets.

When a small television in the front of the room began playing KTLA aerial footage of the destruction on Little Tujunga Canyon Road, a group of people, some in pajamas, gathered around it, staring at the images of burned houses. 

Outside, the sky was clear and blue to the west and gray and smoky to the east. The air smelled like a campfire, and ash floated in it like dirty snowflakes.

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Bruce Sanborn, 55, and his partner, Suzi Fox, 56, and her daughter Halie Fox, 14, lost the house they’d lived in on Little Tujunga Canyon Road for 2½ years, next to Bruce’s mother’s house.

The day before the fire started, Suzi noticed a sign with a dial that said the fire danger was ‘critical,’” the highest rating. She’d never seen it that high, she said. 

On Friday afternoon, they saw the smoke as they were driving home, but it seemed pretty far from where they lived. The wind blew in the opposite direction.

In the evening, the winds shifted and blew the fire right toward them. Suzi had gone to pick up Halie from a friend’s house, and a few minutes later, driving back up the hill, they were surprised to see the street barricaded. It was about 11:30 p.m. 

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“I got up to the driveway, and all of a sudden, there were lights,” she said. “The sheriffs were there. I was, like, why is he following me?”

Suzi said they were told they needed to evacuated.

Bruce’s mother and stepfather were sleeping in their home next door. He has Alzheimer’s, and Suzi went in to try to quickly wake them up — but not panic them. His mother had lived in the area for about 20 years, so they weren’t surprised that a fire was bearing down. 

“We just flew down the mountain,” Suzi said. 

They initially went to Golden Valley High to the Red Cross’s initial evacuation center, before it was moved to Hart High School.

The family went to sleep around 2 a.m. Saturday morning, and there were only a few people there. When Suzi woke up three hours later, there were dozens of firefighters, LAPD officers, sheriffs deputies, California Highway Patrol officers, satellite vehicles and an entire catering company on the property.

At one point, sitting on a cot, Suzi peeked out the window, and she could see “all these men sleeping on metal picnic tables and cement, in sleeping bags.” 

Wind-whipped flames raged overnight in the steep, rugged mountains of the Santa Clarita Valley, charring more than 33,000 acres and threatening thousands of homes.
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“I thought, why are they in sleeping bags? Why aren’t they in here with us? And I looked at the sleeping bags, and I noticed ashes. And I realized these are the firemen,” she said. “They were giving us an element of privacy because we were the only girls. Instead of coming in and having a cot that would be more comfortable than a metal picnic table, they were sleeping outside.”

“And we woke up and they were the ones that made us breakfast, the firemen,” Suzi added.

That Saturday morning, Bruce went to a store with Wi-Fi to do some work while the family went to the beach. He was watching the news when it cut to footage of the burned-up area. He saw his house, charred and burned.

He tracked down the television reporter, who confirmed that it was his house. His mother’s house was also destroyed, she told him. 

He called his wife at the beach and told her. 

They are trying to keep a good attitude. If they had decided to move, Suzi said, they’ have to haul a bunch of heavy stuff around. Now they don’t have to, she joked. Bruce will never have to lug their heavy dresser up and down their stairs, she said, laughing. 

Canyon Country residents Steve Jefferies and John Myers, who chose not to evacuate, talk about firefighting efforts.

But some things are irreplaceable: photographs; the prom dresses Suzi’s oldest daughter, who lives out of state, had saved to pass down to her little sister; jewelry Suzi’s father gave her before he died. 

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“Looking at the pictures of the house, it’s, like, we just had dinner at that dining room table, and now the whole dining room is gone. The whole inside of the house is gone,” she said. “So live in the moment. Enjoy who’s in front of you for the time that they’re here because you don’t know. Nobody knows. There’s no guarantee.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Bruce added. “Everything is figure-outable.”

Bruce said that of all the things to survive the fire, it was a white metal and plastic table that his mother had owned since the 1970s.

“After the apocalypse,” he joked, “the only thing that will have survived are cockroaches, Keith Richards and that table.”

hailey.branson@latimes.com

@haileybranson

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