Survivors relive anguish of escaping blaze; winds remain threat |

Survivors relive anguish of escaping blaze; winds remain threat

CHELSEA CARTER, Associated Press Writer

FALLBROOK, Calif. (AP) — With flames marching up the canyon toward their street, Janemarie Monroe and her neighbors realized they had only minutes to flee.

Monroe and the five others ran out her door and toward her backyard swimming pool. As they left, the fierce winds slammed the door shut behind them. They turned toward the pool to find their path blocked by flames.

Desperate, the six ran toward a nearby home which also had a pool. A fire-fighting helicopter overhead spotted them and a voice over a loudspeaker ordered: “Get in the pool. Get in the pool.”

Monroe and her five neighbors, including two elderly couples, plunged into the chilly 50-degree waters, towing three dogs with them.

On Monday, one day after flames tore through their rural neighborhood, Monroe was recuperating from hypothermia and the anguish of her ordeal. The 43-year-old woman declined to tell her story, asking her husband, Mike Monroe, to do so for her.

The fire tore over the hills of this wealthy enclave Sunday afternoon, fueled by 50 mph offshore winds known as the Santa Anas. Million-dollar ranch homes and groves of avocados went up in flames.

The fire burned some 4,000 acres by Monday. The cause of the blaze was unknown but authorities were investigating reports that it started in an area where trashed was being burned.

Only about 5 percent of the fire was contained Monday and more than 700 firefighters were on the line. But the blaze was moving toward undeveloped terrain, with no immediate threat to people or structures.

About 40 structures, most of them homes, were burned, said Capt. Rick Mann of the North County Fire District.

Early on in the fire, Mike Monroe, 56, said his neighbors along Santa Margarita Road had decided that, if necessary, they would gather at his home because it had a pool.

After finally diving into the neighbor’s pool, the six shivered in the water for more than an hour, keeping only their faces exposed to breathe, he said. The flames leapt over them, singing their skin. They struggled to keep the dogs from trying to run away, but could only hold onto two of them.

As flames flashed over them, Janemarie Monroe believed they all would die, she later told her husband.

Mike Monroe was not among them. He was trapped up the road, blocked by authorities from venturing closer to find his wife.

Finally, after learning she had been calling 911 during her final moments in the house, Monroe persuaded authorities to let him past the roadblock. He walked past burning homes and a fire truck in flames.

He arrived to find two sheriff’s deputies dousing his home with hoses. His wife and neighbors had been pulled from the pool and driven to safety in a squad car, he was told.

The six, who suffered from smoke-inhalation and hypothermia, were among 11 people injured in the blaze. Only one person who suffered a broken ankle remained hospitalized Monday.

Winds were calmer Monday, but fire authorities braced themselves for a possible pick-up in ocean breezes that could change the direction of the blaze.

Over the weekend, the winds also drove a fire near Anaheim Hills, about 40 miles southeast of Los Angeles. No one was injured in the Coal Canyon fire, which devoured about 2,400 acres of brush and was about 35 percent contained Monday.

The fire, which was expected to be fully surrounded by Wednesday, was not threatening any buildings or roads, said Lisa Oborny, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Fire Authority.

In Fallbrook, Dale and Marion New returned to their property Monday to discover their home remained intact.

The couple had battled the fire with garden hoses and were thankful to have been assisted by a passer-by and his three teen-age grandsons, who pulled water from a neighbor’s pool to douse the News’ home.

The News and the good Samaritans finally were forced to abandon the effort by a sheriff’s deputy. Marion New, 51, used the final minutes to grab what she could.

“I ran in. I just found the cat and my wedding ring and we left,” she said.

Before fleeing, the couple had the passer-by write his name and phone number on a brick. On Monday, Dale New held onto the brick, bearing the name Fred Goldman, but was disappointed to discover the phone number was incorrect.

The couple plan to take out a newspaper ad to try to find the man to thank him.

“He’s the real hero,” New said.

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