Homes and lives at the mercy of flames

(Taryn Bruette)

Kelsey Avers

Kayla Maggio had no idea when she woke up that smoky morning 10 days ago that her life was about to take a dramatic twist.

At 10 a.m. she was still in her pajamas. The Santiago Canyon fire was raging just several blocks away at Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park.

“We had 15-20 minutes to evacuate,” said Maggio, 19, undecided. “We pretty much just grabbed everything we could.”Maggio and her family were among thousands of people who fled one of the many fires that lay waste to wind blown Southern California.

That alarming morning, Maggio and her mother and sister drove to her grandmother’s home in Mission Viejo, 30 minutes away.

“I think my mom tends to overreact when it comes to that sort of thing. I think she thought it was mandatory and had us grab everything we had and shove it into our cars and leave,” Maggio said. “My dad was at work so my mom, sister and I got our two dogs and one cat and got them out safely. We grabbed the computer, grabbed pretty much everything and just kind of took off.”

Her family fled the house in 15 minutes, driving away with thoughts of other possessions they should have considered grabbing.

“When I first left the house I really wanted my TV because that’s my little comfort zone,” Maggio said. “Other than that I grabbed anything in my drawers, anything of value really, passports, Social Security cards. There were also some pictures I wanted to grab of when I was younger.”

Fire spread through counties quicker than firefighters from all over the state could move on them, forcing the closure of a large number of school districts, freeways, and business complexes. Threatening fires moving stealthily up hills not only resulted in road closures, but poor air quality from wind driven smoke in the air caused heavy traffic.

It took Maggio and her family 15 minutes longer than usual to get to her grandmother’s house.

“I was following my mom in my car. We saw like six or seven fire trucks coming up the wrong direction,” Maggio said. “They cleared out one of the lanes on the road and we saw them passing us going the wrong direction, so that was kind of interesting. It was orange and smoky [outside], like the rapture or something. People panicked.”

Although some students did not get evacuated, the fear of threatening flames still consumed them. The flames got as close as three miles from where Alicia Dimas, 26, psychology, lives with her roommate and her three-year-old son, who was evacuated from preschool as the fires created smoke-filled skies.

“My roommate works at a hospital and couldn’t leave,” Dimas said. “I had to leave my job to pick her son up from school.”

While not in serious danger, Dimas was intimidated by the red glow of the fire she saw outside of her bedroom window.

(Taryn Bruette)

“We left our stuff in the car for three days because we didn’t know what was going to happen,” Dimas said. “The power lines are a quarter mile from my house, so I was kind of concerned about that because that’s how some of the fires started in the first place.”

Dimas said she was concerned for her roommate’s son being prepared for circumstances such as these.

“In situations like that you have to be out the door in a matter of minutes,” she said. “We agreed to teach him about evacuation and stuff like that.”

Maggio’s family returned seven hours later, but left items in their vehicles until they were sure they were in settled safety. “I thought we were going to leave again,” Maggio said.

(Taryn Bruette)

Danger was still present in neighboring streets.

“Our neighbors a couple streets away [subjected to] mandatory evacuation and came over to our house for a couple of hours at night,” Maggio said. “We could see flames out our window, but no damage was done to our house.”

Maggio’s home still smells of smoke, but her family and her pets are out of harm’s way.

The fires have resulted in seven confirmed deaths, damaged more than a half-million acres, and destroyed more than 2,300 structures including 1,700 homes.

Those still with standing homes are appreciative.

“I was really grateful,” Dimas said. “I know a young family that lost a home in Modjeska.”

More than 14,000 firefighters fought the fires and half a million residents were displaced. Political cartoonist J.D. Crowe dubbed the week “Southern California’s ‘Katrina'”.

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