It’s bad enough when you’re evacuated at 3 a.m. because flames from a raging wildfire are bearing down on your neighborhood. The experience becomes even rawer, even more visceral, when you watch your home — and priceless soccer memorabilia from three World Cups — burn on television.
That’s what happened to former U.S. soccer star Eric Wynalda early Friday, as the massive fire in Ventura County claimed his house in Westlake Village.
“Gone,” Wynalda said Friday morning. “Brutal … Watched it burn on live TV.”
What is being called the Woolsey Fire began Thursday afternoon, then literally exploded overnight as Santa Ana winds gusted to a reported 70 mph in mountain passes. More than 75,000 homes were evacuated, and the 101 Freeway was closed when the blaze unexpectedly jumped it.
By Friday morning, it had already charred 10,000 acres with the fear it could burn to the Pacific Ocean.
Wynalda said they received an alert on their phones about 12:30 a.m. of a voluntary evacuation. His wife decided to leave then, loading their kids into the car with jewelry, important documents and four suitcases of clothes.
Wynalda said he’d be right behind them and began packing clothes into a smaller sedan. At about 3 a.m., he went upstairs and saw decades worth of soccer memorabilia — jerseys from a career that took him to the 1987 NCAA championship game with San Diego State, to Germany’s Bundesliga, to scoring the first goal in Major League Soccer history, to being the U.S. national team’s all-time leading scorer, to three World Cups, to international all-star games, to several stints as a TV analyst and now to coaching.
Then he heard pounding on his door.
“Two cops were there, screaming: ‘You need to leave now. You need to leave … NOW,’ ” Wynalda said.
A fireball from the blaze had landed next to his house, like a meteor.
“The firetrucks weren’t even there yet,” Wynalda said. “I went across the street and got an elevated look at the fire and I was like, ‘OK, that’s not good.’ There got to be so much smoke and ash that I couldn’t even see any more, so I left and got on the freeway.”
About 4 a.m., he received a text from a close friend: I’m so sorry, bro.
Wynalda texted back: I know, this is horrible.
His friend: No, your house is on Channel 9. I’m watching it. Your house is on fire.
Wynalda got to his in-laws’ home in Corona and turned on the TV. He said his development in Westlake Village has 162 homes, and his was the only one that burned.
Two days earlier, Wynalda was on camera for happier reasons. He was in Las Vegas touring Cashman Field, the former minor-league baseball stadium that will be home to the Lights FC soccer team he was recently named to coach.
He had returned to Southern California only to learn of the mass shooting during “college night” at a bar in nearby Thousand Oaks that killed 12 people, including a Ventura County police officer. Now, his house is burned.
“All my memorabilia is gone. I only have memories now,” Wynalda said. “I feel terrible, but the reality is a couple nights ago there are people who will never see their sons and daughters again. I think we need to take stock of what’s real.
“You can replace a house, you can just rebuild. But you’re never going to bring those people back. I’ll be fine.”