Figting Fires In So. Cal.

By Leonard Lacaze (1954)

Merry Christmas


(submitted by Marie Brunson Keeter '52 - I received this email from my friend Leonard Lacaze, who also attended North Dallas, and is living in Southern California, along with a bunch of us living out here.  Please send him an email if you want, and tell him that you read his story to me about fighting the fires in California to save his home from destruction.  I know he would love to hear from his friends in Texas.I cried as I read his story as he has my admiration for his will to live and fight for his home.  I was happy to hear from him finally after months of silence as his electricity, water, and phones including the internet were all shut down.  His home survived the ordeal, and Leonard lived to tell about it.  God bless Leonard and his family!

Love to all, Marie Brunson Keeter (January class of '52)      

The Witch Creek fire started about 2:00 P. M. on October 21st.   Witch Creek is a wide place in the road about 7.1 miles east of our house.   The wind had been blowing 25 mph with gusts to 40 mph all day directly from the east.  The humidity was about 4%.    At about 3:00 P. M., we got a recorded reverse 911 call on the telephone telling us to evacuate which didnít phase us at all.  At about 4:00 P. M., the phone quit working.  At dusk, which was about 4:30 or 5:00, several deputy sheriffsí cars were cruising up and down the streets broadcasting mandatory evacuation orders.  They canít do that!  They canít force me off my place!  I know my rights!  We just stared at them and they didnít stop. 


a d
Len's House Still Standing Fire Night
c b
Day After The Fire Fire Damage

I have to admit, however, when they drove through, it certainly gave me pause for a hard swallow.  Next was the helicopter with the loud speaker telling us to get out.  Another hard swallow.  It was quite clear that we were on our own.  They had written us off long before the fire even got to us.  No surprise there.   By 9:00 P. M. the flames were coming over the hill immediately to our east.   The enclosed daylight picture shows this hill to our east.  I went in the house to get the camera and by the time I got the camera set up, the fire was already down the hill.  The photo I took that night is the black picture with the red in the middle of it.  The silhouette of the framework was our new gazebo under construction.  The gazebo was blown over from the wind during the fire. 

The field of brush to the north of our place was the first to be totally in flames but it was a line of flame coming from the north.  I thought it was rather odd that this line of fire was moving pretty fast since it was moving perpendicular to the wind direction.  When that fire got to the bare dirt driveway along our north property line, it simply died out for the most part.  Heavy black smoke, heat and embers were now blowing directly Ė thatís straight horizontally, not up or at an angle - onto our property from across the street, directly east.  I got up on the roof with one water hose and Linda and Monette each had a water hose on the ground.  By 11:00 P. M. we were in the middle of it.  The embers, smoke and burning trash blowing across our place was almost solid now.  The smoke was so thick at times that I couldnít even see our front gate.  Linda announced that the electric power had failed.  There was so much light from things burning I couldnít even tell the lights had gone out.  We had to scream at each other to be heard above the wind and things crashing around from the wind.  If you have ever driven in a snowstorm with the flakes coming straight at the windshield, imagine each flake is a brightly glowing ember and thatís what it was like.   There were a few moments when I didnít think we were going to be able to handle it.  I had already reduced my expectations to saving only the house and letting the barn and garage go. 


That afternoon, I had parked all the cars out in our barren field to the south to save them from the fire if we couldnít save the buildings.   I parked them all with the tails toward the wind.  They survived the fire just fine but the wind was so hard that it sand blasted the rears of the cars and especially the rear view mirrors including my precious í36 V-12 Packard.  The red glass lenses of the í36 now look partially white from the surface being pitted.  During the peak of the fire, I could see that after I wet the roof down, it would be dry again in just a few minutes.  I also noticed that the wind was blowing so hard that no embers were sticking to the roof so my effectiveness was somewhat marginal.  All I had to do now was to slip and fall off the roof and break my hip.  I guess my biggest contribution to fighting this fire was seeing that a pretty big flame had started in the street side of the cactus at the front of our property.  The cactus had tons of dry pine needles that had fallen in them from the two large pine trees in that area.  I yelled at Monette to put out that fire.  She hadnít seen it because she was on the ground and I was on the roof with a better view.   The cactus was about 6 feet tall and very thick.   Linda was in the back yard putting out little fires that had started and probably saved the barn.  Monette later admitted that she didnít think she would be able to save both trees and concentrated primarily on the one in front of our house.  The lower trunk of the tree to the north was pretty badly burned.  If those trees had caught, our house would surely be gone today. 


As the night went on, the public supply water pressure went lower and lower.   The next day there was no water supply at all.  The fire was through with us but it was still making its way to the sea.    We were very lucky to be one of the first in the area to deal with the fire.  When the fire went through the towns to our west the next day, they had no water supply.  The really intense part of the blaze across the street only lasted about an hour.  By 3:00 A.M., almost all the remaining hot spots had been put out.  By 4:00 A. M., we decided to go to sleep with one person standing watch.  The strong wind continued for two more days and nights and hotspots kept popping up all over.  Peak gusts were at 50 mph the next day.  We had someone one on watch all night for the next 5 days.  A full week after the initial flames, a hot spot in our rear fence line flared up.


The barn across the street was burned to the ground.  It turned out that most of the embers that we were experiencing came from a huge hay stack across the street.  I thought it was our neighborís house burning.  Their house actually was badly scorched but is livable. That stack of hay is, of course, completely gone.  The vacant house right across from us but to the north a bit, burned to the ground the next morning.  Our neighbor downwind from us was putting out little fires at our rear fence line, which of course, helped save his house.  The family just west of him evacuated and their house burned to the ground.   Three relatively new multi million dollar houses on top a mountain to our west all burned to the ground.  Everyone I know who stayed and fought the fire saved their house.   Not everyone who evacuated lost their house but every burned house in our neighborhood was evacuated.  We were without electric power and public water supply for almost exactly one week.  We still have no ground line phone (and no internet).   AT&Tís performance through this thing has been strictly third world quality. The first time we saw any fire truck was about a week after the fire started.


It was quite an experience.  It was our second fire but much tougher than the first due to the high winds.  Linda and Monette have a lot of guts.  They stayed right with it when it really got bad and succeeded.  When Linda saw all the burned stuff around us the next day she was pretty happy with our success.  We lost quite a bit of growing stuff but we still have all our un-naturally occurring worldly possessions, for whatever that is worth.    It sure beats living in our RV sifting through the remains of those worldly possessions as many other unfortunate families are doing.


                              IT IS A MERRY CHRISTMAS INDEED!