George Contreras was ready to wind down for the night — his dog was already asleep on his bed. He plugged in his laptop to charge for the night, and he was making himself a cup of coffee before taking a bath.
It was about 9:45 p.m. on Feb. 13 and, within an hour, the longtime Burbank resident’s whole world would go up in flames.
“I was taking a bath and I hear my space heater cycle and all of a sudden the lights go out,” the 60-year-old said. “I get up to reset the breaker ... As soon as I open the door ... it is pitch black... blacker than I’ve ever seen it before.”
Contreras said he knew something was wrong the moment he stepped out of the bathroom. During previous power outages, there was still light shining from another part of his home that hadn’t experience a tripped circuit.
As he began walking into the hallway he was hit by a sudden wave of a heat followed by the unmistakable smell of smoke — something in his home had caught fire.
He immediately went back into the bathroom and slammed the door shut, and he immediately thought of his dog, an 8-year-old black Labrador named Blackie that he’s had since she was a puppy.
“She’s all I have, so I open the door and now it’s like a backdraft so the heat pushed me back into the room,” Contreras said. “If I opened that door again, the fire was going to get me.”
Left with no choice he dove naked out of a window to escape the flames.
Another dog he owns, an 8-year-old pit bull/terrier named Scout, was in the backyard, safe from harm.
Quickly wrapping himself in a tarp that used to cover his motorcycle, Contreras said he saw a group of people assembled outside, drawn by the large plume of smoke billowing from his home.
“There’s 30 or 40 people with their cameras out, and I had to say, ‘Hey, can somebody call the [expletive] fire department?’” he said.
Contreras said it seemed like eons passed before the Burbank Fire Department arrived. As firefighters got to work, he tried to follow them in to get to his dog.
At one point, Contreras said a firefighter had to pull him back away from his home.
“I’m screaming, ‘My dog is in there, that’s all I have left in the world,’” he said.
Contreras is the only surviving member of his family, who had moved into the Lake Street home in the 1960s when he was a child so that his father, actor Roberto Contreras, could be closer to the film industry.
Not only was his dog lost in the fire but the mementos he kept of his long-passed family — he said he even kept his mother’s bedroom the way it was before she died.
It’s unknown what caused the fire. Authorities say the investigation is still ongoing, but Contreras thinks it was caused by a faulty laptop battery.
In the wake of the tragedy, the community has rallied around Contreras, who works part time as a crossing guard at nearby Walt Disney Elementary School.
Sarah Radle, a neighbor who lives three houses away from Contreras, went over to check on him the day after the fire.
Before that moment, she only knew him as the person who lives in the flag house, the nickname given by her 1-year-old son, Jack, for the flagpole Contreras has on his front lawn.
After talking to him for a bit, she started to leave before quickly turning back and saying she wanted to start a GoFundMe for him.
“I thought maybe we’d be able to scrape together $500 for him and get him a few nights in a hotel,” Radle said. “But the next thing I know, I had parents from Walt Disney reach out to me … word spread and it just took off.”
As of Friday evening, the fundraiser had collected more than $24,000 for Contreras.
One comment on the GoFundMe page from Sade Robertson called Contreras “an incredible mentor growing up.”
“You’ve always cared for everyone around you and for the community to give back in a time of need and take care of you warms my heart,” Robertson wrote.
Contreras said he was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support as he read the comments received as part of the fundraiser. Especially touching to him was “pick-me-up” letters he received from students at Walt Disney.
“The money is one thing; I could never ever reciprocate that,” he said. “But the emotional things they’re saying about me … I don’t know if I deserve it. I’m just doing my job, and I would give my life for any of those kids.”
Since the fire, Contreras said he’s been living in the guest room of a neighbor’s home. Although the money from the GoFundMe won’t be enough to completely rebuild his home anytime soon, he doesn’t intend to sell the land and leave.
“This is my family home, and I’m not going anywhere, even if I have to live in the garage,” he said. “I don’t know how I’m going to do it or how long it’ll take, but I’m not leaving.”