Counting blessings, casualties

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It was raining on Friday after the Corral Fire and the smell of smoke was finally subdued. People were out cleaning their sites where former homes and their skeletons remained. It looked like business as usual in sections of El Nido, although around the bend and up the hill it was black as coal and desolate. Verizon trucks and an occasional Charter truck rolled through the canyon and some residents were waiting patiently for adjusters to arrive. While clean up continued, some residents counted their blessings, and told tales of survival and sadness, and of action and heroism.

One survivor, Diane Jewell, a seasoned Corral resident since 1970 (before there was a designated El Nido section), stayed at her home throughout most of the fire.

“I think with each fire, you learn,” Jewell said. “I will never, ever leave again, even to go down the hill to the trailer park. When I came back home at 2:30 or three in the afternoon, we were still putting out all kinds of burns because huge embers were flying around. I’ve been through five or six fires. This is the first time I ever left.”

Jewell recounted what happened from the beginning. “On Nov. 24, Saturday at 4 a.m., Cynthia Benjamin called me and said, ‘We have a fire at the top of the hill.’ I called friends and we just started calling each other,” Jewell said. “We went outside and at 4:15 a.m. there were fire trucks at the top, known as Malibu Bowl.

“One of the problems was there were no fire trucks up here in El Nido until around 8 a.m.,” Jewell continued. “They were way up at the top bowl where the fire started. We’ve been lucky in past fires that we’ve had more time to prepare. This is the first time the fire started in our own canyon, which has always been our fear.”

Jewell recounted how in the haste to evacuate, some people left their animals behind. She also said some left them behind because they had no room in their cars.

However, she said, “our neighbor Hope Brown’s children would not get in the car until they had the frog, the turtle, the fish, and Graumet, their bull dog, with one eye,” Jewell said.

An unpredictable menace

“The fire seemed to be capricious,” Jewell said. “It skipped a house, we lost two houses, skipped a house. Our neighborhood was devastated to learn Ben Kennedy’s house had been lost. Ben, his animals: Chiquita, a burro, his roosters, and his home had been a fixture in the canyon since the ’50s.” (Chiquita was saved by neighbor Vic Calandra and Sherman Baylin, and a few other people. Calandra had said it took four people to round the burro up; it was as stubborn as its owner.)

While some criticized firefighters for not doing enough to save homes in the area, Jewell said most people in the area thought they “were incredibly calm, caring, and competent. They had more of an understanding of canyon living and loss.

“On the other hand,” she added, “sentiments ran high, feeling the need for more understanding and compassion from the police. One of them said to me when I wanted to go back to my house and told him my house was just around the corner, ‘I’m not from around here. I’d rather get shot than burned, but lady if you want to get burnt then go ahead!'”

Jewell recounted more “heartbreak” stories of her neighbors’ losses.

“Priscilla Avedon had just moved in a week and a half ago. She just kept on saying ‘Oh! I can’t wait to see a deer.’ Her house burned down. Literally, it was almost like her house dissolved. It just kind of slid straight down the hill. She came up Sunday afternoon. Just above her house, standing in the middle of nothing, she finally got to see her deer.”

She also told of her good friends from Italy who had moved into a home at the top of Malibu Bowl Friday before the fire. Their luggage had been temporarily lost, and many of their possessions were in boxes in the garage. “I had given them a special bottle of ‘Billie’s Wine’, a ’97 Merlot [made by another Corral neighbor] to save for a special occasion,” Jewell said. “They brought it up to welcome their friends Saturday night and four hours later their house burned down.”

Fred and Charlotte Ward and their son Chris live on Barrymore Drive, where at least seven other homes were destroyed. They stayed there the entire time during the fire. Their home on top of the ridge with no trees or brush around survived the fire.

A prepared survivor

Charlie Datin, El Nido resident and Malibu native, was out of the country, packing to come home when the fire broke out. He called his good friend and neighbor Jewell constantly to check on the conditions. He was wise enough to have prepared for a possible fire before leaving by filling his cisterns and leaving out water hoses. He had cleared the hillside around his home for two days before traveling, understanding from past experiences what a season of Santa Ana winds might bring. He was determined not to lose his homes, saying, “I built them with my own two hands. I lost some personal property and landscape, but my homes are still standing.

“Eight months ago my neighbor Matt Haines and I bought an old fire truck, a pumper water tender and transported it up here from Modesto. The 1974 International is gas powered, has 13,000 miles on it, and still runs really great. I used it to water my native plants. I had been exchanging e-mails with Matt and said, ‘Could you make sure the trucks are filled because I had emptied them when I left. I’m just so worried about the fires,'” Datin said.

Haines and several neighbors used the trucks and water hoses to fight the fire and save their homes on Sequit Drive.

“People told me,” Datin said, “that you couldn’t see 50 feet ahead of you because the smoke was so bad and you didn’t know if the house two doors down was still there; they just had to keep going. There is a bright parrot-green house in El Nido, which ended up being a directional beacon for the firemen.”

Now, looking down, and across the canyon and up to the tops of the hillsides, there is blackened devastation, once dotted with a landscape fit for Renoir.