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Firefighters stood by helplessly as own homes burned

Posted: July 25, 2016 9:37 p.m.
Updated: July 25, 2016 9:37 p.m.
One of two homes that burned on Iron Canyon Road in Canyon Country. Signal photo by Dan Watson One of two homes that burned on Iron Canyon Road in Canyon Country. Signal photo by Dan Watson
One of two homes that burned on Iron Canyon Road in Canyon Country. Signal photo by Dan Watson

U.S. Forest Service firefighters Ramon Chavez and James Robledo were on the line battling the Sand fire Saturday when they received word from a helicopter pilot that their own homes were in the path of the fire, according to a Chavez family member.

Five of the 18 structures burned to the ground by the fast-moving brush fire since Friday were dwellings on U.S. Forest Service land that served as homes for Forest Service employees. Four firefighters and one fire technician lived in those dwellings.

All of the homes exploded in a ball of fire that rolled down Sand Canyon from Bear Divide on Saturday, talking out the USFS homes, a damaging at least two movie ranches and destroying two additional residences.

“My brother was fighting the fire in Bear Divide when he was given notification from a chopper pilot that my brother’s home was one of the homes threatened,” Chavez’s sister Lucia Reyes told The Signal Monday.

Chavez and Robledo were given permission, she said, to fight the fire at their own homes in the Angeles National Forest.

“How many of his fellow firefighters helped I don’t know, but they also had some help from hot shots,” she said. “They all tried to save his house.

“They had a good amount of time and a plan that worked in the past but that fire, when it came over the crest, exploded like a fireball and engulfed those houses,” Lucia Reyes said.

“They watched their houses burn side by side,” she said.

Chavez, a married father of three whose wife was in San Diego at the time of the fire, and Robledo, married with five kids, ran for shelter at a nearby U.S. Forest Service station, she said.

A third firefighter, Sergio Toscano, also lost his U.S. Forest Service home, said Forest Service spokesman Nathan Judy.

“He was on the line fighting the fire,” Judy said, noting Toscano was working with a different crew than the one assigned to Chavez and Robledo.

Toscano learned later that his house had burned down, Judy said.

Friends and family members of other Sand fire victims who lost their homes have wasted little time trying to help.

A handful of fundraising websites have been set up since Saturday to help Sand Canyon residents displace by the fire, some of whom lost everything.

No insurance
Jan and Loren Sanborn lost everything when the Sand fire destroyed their home, said family friend Davis Sannerud.

“She is such a special person on the planet,” Sannerud said Monday. “They lost their home and they didn’t have insurance.”

And, that’s the reason, he said, for setting up a GoFundMe website to raise money for the couple.

Sanborn, a renowned pianist and composer/arranger, recently retired from a position at California State University Northridge, Sannarud said.

The past four years, she has worked as the primary caregiver to her husband, who has been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, he said, noting on his website that the man “is confused and not completely aware of what has happened.”

The Sanborns were forced to flee their home at night and were only able to save a few important documents, Sannarud said.

They have stayed with friends since the fire.

Nick of time
Sand Canyon resident Russell Saunders told The Signal Monday that he and friends were working outside his home Saturday on Iron Canyon Road when 60-foot flames rolled over the crest behind his home.

The Sand fire destroyed his next-door neighbor’s home and an A-frame wooden house next to it. The body of man was found Saturday in a burned car on the A-frame’s property.

“At 1:30 p.m. Saturday it was pretty clear,” he said. “Then at 2:30 p.m. we saw heavy smoke and the fire crested the hill within 30 minutes.

“The flames were 60 feet high. It singed my hair,” Saunders said. “We all jumped in vehicles and caravaned out of there. It was congested with how many people were trying to get down the street.

“That fire moved so fast it felt like everything was in slow motion,” he said. “I can’t believe anyone would want to stay. My natural instinct was like a jack rabbit, go.”

Saunders, reflecting on the intensity and swiftness of the Sand fire, said he could easily understand anyone climbing into a car for safety would “get caught up in the fire.

“I never thought of staying for one second when I saw that fire cover over the hill. It was that big. It was that hot,” he said.

[email protected]
on Twitter @jamesarthurholt



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