'The house is going to get on fire': when California wildfires come knocking

San Bernardino (United States) (AFP) –


When Matthew Valdivia woke up his wife Wendy with a desperate cry of "Fire! Fire!" she thought she was dreaming.

But it was no dream: In a matter of minutes, her house would be reduced to ash, and she and her family had to get out.

She jumped up, grabbing a folder that held birth certificates, passports and other documents, before heading to her children's rooms.

"The house is going to get on fire! Get up!" she ordered them like a drill sergeant.

"Kids normally need time to wake up, and we didn't have time for that," she later said.

Matthew had already run into the street and alerted the neighbors by shouting "Fire! Fire! Get out!"

He and his wife then loaded their four children into the car and fled as the flames reached their house.

Mitzy Marzullo was in the first house on the block. She woke up, and looked out the window.

"It was all glowing orange," she recalled, as what would become known as the Hillside Fire rapidly approached her neighborhood.

"I have never experienced that before. It was very scary," Marzullo said of the blaze that has so far burned 200 acres (80 hectares) of land and was only 50 percent contained by 1:00 pm local time (2000 GMT) on Thursday.

She herded her children in the car and drove them several blocks away, while her husband and father-in-law stayed, hosing down the garden and the front of her house.

The two families' neighborhood in San Bernardino, a city 62 miles (100 kilometers) east of Los Angeles, was on the edge of a national forest -- and that put it directly in the path of the rapidly advancing fire.

The Valdivias watched their three story house -- their first, which they bought just over a year ago and had been fixing up bit by bit -- burn, along with some of their neighbors' houses.

"It hurts, man. It hurts, but the fact that everybody was able to get out alive and not hurt" is more important, Matthew Valdivia told AFP.

The Marzullos managed to extinguish the embers that rained onto their house, allowing it to survive, albeit with black scorches on its exterior.

- 'Nothing I could do' -

A dozen fires are raging in California, fed by violent winds and low humidity. The largest of them, the Kincade Fire in northern California, has wiped out an area twice the size of San Francisco.

Matthew Valdivia had never lived in an area with high fire risk before, and didn't consider trying to defend his home.

He said he "already knew that there was going to be nothing I could do" to protect the house, of which only the chimney and some of the foundation -- both made of brick -- remain standing.

"I know for a fact that my little hose wouldn't have been able to do anything," Valdivia said.

As they drove off, the Valdivia family realized they had left their dog. They quickly turned around, got him into the car and took one last look at their home -- which was already starting to burn.

Wendy Valdivia recalled that they had just painted the fence and were debating what color to paint the porch.

Now, they're waiting to hear back from their homeowners insurance company, something that also makes her worry.

Since they live in a fire hazard zone, "We pay a lot for our insurance... more than most," Wendy Valdivia explained.

The big question facing the young family is whether to rebuild their home or try to move to a lower-risk area. The fire was not an isolated event; another like it will inevitably strike again.

"We moved into this neighborhood because it was a nice neighborhood and (I) want something better for my family," said Matthew Valdivia.

"Everybody's really close knit here... and everybody has each other's back. And that's kind of hard to find in a neighborhood... so, I would like to rebuild and have a better plan just in case something does happen."