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Fleeing smoke and flames, Orange County residents scramble to find safe landing spots

Eileen Gomez and her son were thrilled when they moved to a Yorba Linda community with beautifully manicured tree-lined streets, half-acre yards and friendly neighbors whose homes sit in a valley with large canyons on either side.

“It is so peaceful, especially coming here from Los Angeles and all its congestion,” Gomez said.

That sense of rural tranquility changed dramatically Monday when strong Santa Ana winds from the east whipped up a firestorm that charred nearby canyons and ridges and which, by Tuesday, had consumed 14,334 acres.

“We always worried about the illegal fireworks in L.A. and fire,” Gomez said. “They never happened. Now, it happened here. What a change in environmental dynamics.”

Gomez and her son, Matthew – who brought along their two tabby cats and a Labrador-mix puppy – are among more than 100,000 people in Orange County who have evacuated from their homes as the Blue Ridge and Santiago fires sent folks packing their valuables and heading to family, friends, hotels, churches and community centers looking for safety. In some cases, evacuations were mandatory; some were voluntary.



Gomez, who moved into a neighborhood that already had experience with fire in 2008 when the Freeway Complex Fire raced through the rural canyons, noticed some of her neighbors backing their cars into their garages and putting their animals into crates.

“We saw the winds were really whipping up and smoke was coming from the Irvine fire,” she said, adding that her son has compromised lungs and she worried about his ability to breathe. “I wasn’t frightened, but I also didn’t want to freak out and have a heart attack in the night. For my sake and my son’s, I wanted to leave. The winds had me really concerned.”

Unlike some others in her neighborhood, she didn’t wait. She grabbed important documents, such as her living trust and insurance papers.

“You can’t take it all,” she said. “It’s all replaceable, anyway.”

Gomez headed out at about 3:30 p.m. and went to stay with friends in Cerritos. The family had a large yard for her rambunctious 4-month-old puppy and were fine taking in her two tabby cats. She and her son stayed in the family’s game room that was perfect for accommodating guests.

“I’m very blessed I have such good friends,” she said.

Over in Foothill Ranch, Brian Wilson had been monitoring the fire’s progress most of the day.

“I was almost dismissive at first,” he said. “It looked like the winds weren’t going to push into our direction.”

He and his wife and other neighbors held lookout at a spot around the corner that provides a wide view of the cityscape below, along with avocado groves and the Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park nearby.

“You could see the entire fire line,” he said. “We were watching the planes dump retardant. There was a perfectly straight line of fire. We didn’t know if it was a road or a fire break. Then we started seeing it come over the canyon. There were some firefighters in the cul-de-sac and they said, ‘This will 100% come to the property lines tonight before dark.”

With a bit more urgency, the couple headed home and began packing up valuables, including a 40-year-old green Vespa scooter he’d acquired abroad, three carbon-fiber mountain bikes, some of the crafts their kids made as youngsters, a gun, their passports and their dog, Duke, a collie-mix.

“I gave my mother-in-law a heads-up and we headed over,” Wilson said.

On Tuesday morning, Wilson, who works for Felt Bicycles in Rancho Santa Margarita, made himself at home in the Westminster house. He put on a pot of coffee and was back on  Zoom calls by 8 a.m. and sending out emails.

“I’ve been working from home now for seven months because of COVID,” he said. “It was like nothing ever happened.”

And, back in Yorba Linda, earlier that morning, at 3:30 a.m. Marlene and Ken Nelson struggled with the same decision of whether they should evacuate. Their cars were already packed with photographs, laptops, and other valuables.

For hours, they’d kept a close watch on the orange flames flickering beyond the ridge. Sometimes the fire was huge and bright; other times, it didn’t look so threatening.

But they also knew how sudden and unpredictable it could become. In 2008 during the Freeway Complex Fire, the fire came racing through Blue Mud Canyon, right to the fence surrounding their half-acre yard. If Ken Nelson hadn’t stayed there to save it, their house would have been gone, his wife said. He also helped save other homes in their neighborhood during that fire.

“It came up over the ridge; then it came down toward us. Blue Mud Canyon — it’s like a matchstick; that’s how the 2008 fire got the houses. We knew what it could do.”

Now, 12 years older and in their 70s, Nelson said, she convinced her husband to go.

“I kept pulling him out of his chair and said, ‘Look at it now,’” she said.

Finally, he agreed.

The couple went to their daughter’s home in Anaheim Hills and tried to get some sleep, but their adrenaline was pumping.

“We drove back here at 9:30,” she said. “Since there’s been a big firefight at San Antonio ( nearby housing development). It was quite the battle, but it’s subsided now. It’s interesting when you think it’s all died down; then there’s a plume. If there is no wind, I won’t be worried, but if there are fires again, we’ll be out there watering.”


Source: Orange County Register

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