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Anxiety grows with fires

The pumpkins were carved, lit and set out in front of the house. Skeletons hung by the front door.

BY PJ HELLER | STEVENSON RANCH, Calif. | October 29, 2003

"I’ve got the cats and a couple of important papers and a couple of wedding gifts."

—Ron Riegler

The pumpkins were carved, lit and set out in front of the house. Skeletons hung by the front door. Cardboard tombstones with various inscriptions filled the lawn.

But for all the spookiness planned for neighborhood trick-or-treaters on Halloween, nothing could have been eerier on Tuesday night than the glow of flames burning on hillsides above this mostly deserted neighborhood.

Like residents throughout Southern California who have been monitoring the wildfires in the region, people living here in Stevenson Ranch had been carefully watching the progress of the Simi Valley fire that has been raging since Saturday and which has blackened at least 95,000 acres and destroyed 16 homes and 64 outbuildings.

But it wasn’t until late Tuesday afternoon when, as neighbors in the Southern Oaks section stood on sidewalks and streets watching and videotaping the clouds of black smoke and flames billowing up from the hills around the enclave and feeling the ash raining down from the sky, that they were given the order to evacuate.

It’s unbelievable,” said resident Trish Krueger. “I thought, ‘no way (would we have to evacuate).”

Some residents were prepared to leave. Others grabbed what they could and quickly fled the neighborhood. Some left the sprinklers going on their lawns in an attempt to protect their homes.

“I’ve got the cats and a couple of important papers and a couple of wedding gifts,” said Ron Riegler of San Clemente, who picked up the items from the home of his son and daughter-in-law, who were enjoying their honeymoon in Hawaii.

“I hope it works out for everyone,” said Riegler, who noted he had spoken with his son on Monday and informed him of the fire situation.

“Our cars are packed,” noted Krueger. “Insurance, important papers, jewelry and some clothes.”

She said her two children, ages 5 and 8, had been picked up at school by her mother and taken to her home in Orange County.

“Grandma picked them up so I could pack up,” she said. “She left her job and came up and picked them up.”

With the fire creeping closer to the neighborhood on Monday night, Krueger said her 8-year-old was “sobbing hysterically.”

“They don’t know (about what’s happening) today,” she said. “She doesn’t need to be worried about it. Let’s let these guys worry about it.”

These “guys” were the firefighters from throughout the state who flooded into the neighborhood, parking their trucks in driveways, streets and cul de sacs to protect the homes in the event the fire moved down the hillside.

By nightfall, with helicopters no longer able to bombard the flames with water and retardant, the flames continued to slowly creep closer to the neighborhood. One firefighter said it would be morning, if then, before the flames might reach the homes. There was little wind during the early evening, keeping embers from blowing down the hillside and igniting the brush.

The flames forced the nearby Interstate 5 freeway to be shut down at the height of the evening commute, snarling traffic for miles. It was later reopened but other roads in the area remained closed. Stevenson Ranch location is not far from Six Flags Magic Mountain in nearby Valencia, which a “Fright Fest” planned for Halloween this Friday.

Whether that event can compare to the scare that residents like those in Stevenson Ranch are experiencing with the wildfires remains to be seen. What is even scarier, they said, is what they might find when they return to their homes.

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