Californians reflect after fleeing homes as fire came close

Lisa Kermode, second from right, and her children, from left, Damien, Lola and Michael, pose outside the ruins of their home after a wildfire swept through Ventura.

Amanda Lee Myers

VENTURA — They ran for their lives by the thousands when the devastating wildfires raced across a huge swath of brush-covered Southern California hillsides, and they survived even if in many cases their homes didn't. Some lost everything. Others returned to find homes still standing but put in danger a second time when flames that had seemed to spare them returned. Others told of driving through a wall of flames to safety. Here are some of their stories.

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Brian Bromberg and Wendy Frank had just saved their beloved horses from a raging wildfire for the second time when they experienced their own brush with death — for the third time.

The couple, who live in the mountainous artist colony of Ojai, had already escaped flames that had burned down neighbors' homes and had gone back to rescue their horses from a boarding facility when they were headed to a hotel in Santa Barbara on Wednesday night. Suddenly they were confronted by a wall of flames lining both sides of U.S. Highway 101.

"I thought we were in a Schwarzenegger movie," Bromberg, 57, recalled at the evacuation shelter in Ventura on Thursday as he comforted his horses.

"Literally we drove through a 20-foot wall of flame and embers and blew through it. We must have been going 100 miles per hour," Bromberg said. "That was hot, and we were in the car and could feel it."

Earlier Wednesday, the couple of five years was sitting down for dinner when Frank decided to check on their four horses. The pair had just left them at a boarding facility 10 miles from their home, where they thought they would be safe.

"I just had a feeling and I reached out to a man we know who lives close to where they were being housed and he said, 'You need to get here right away, you need to get them out. The whole area is going to be engulfed by fire,'" she said.

The couple raced to Ojai and got the horses out with minutes to spare.

The day before, Frank was on a business trip while Bromberg was home, using buckets of water to douse flames approaching the couple's ranch.

"The house on the other side of us lost a barn and an outbuilding, the place on the other side of us — the whole property burned down, and the place behind us was a wall of flames and I'm standing in the middle of this by myself with a bucket of water going to hotspots, pouring it out all day long and keeping the barn hosed with water," he said

Bromberg, a Grammy-nominated jazz musician, and Frank, a technology security expert at PricewaterhouseCoopers, say they plan to wait until they are certain their home is out of danger before returning.

"I feel blessed to be alive. Somebody is taking care of us," Bromberg said.

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Steve Andruszkewicz and his neighbor Joseph Ruffner returned to their Faria Beach Colony homes just north of Ventura on Thursday to discover the flames that appeared to have spared the houses were threatening them once again.

"I thought we were done yesterday," Ruffner said, adding he and his family returned to their home in the morning to see a wall of fire that seemed to be a safe distance away. But then it moved in, spraying hot embers onto the neighborhood.

"It's coming back to burn what it didn't burn yesterday," he said.

Firefighters urged people to leave the beachfront community, where electricity was out.

"We're leaving," Andruszkewicz said as he and his wife sprayed palm trees with water from garden hoses first.

"We left Tuesday night and stayed down at our son's house," he continued. "We came back yesterday, stayed the night. (But) this has got me worried because of the blowing embers."

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Ruffner said he was staying put this time.

"I bought a generator yesterday so at least I can see on TV what's going on," he said.

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Marolyn Romero-Sim wept as she sat on a cot at an evacuation center recounting how the modest RV her family called home was destroyed by the largest and most destructive Southern California wildfire.

"Everything is ashes. Everything. We don't have a place to live. We lost stuff we can't get back," she said.

She said her husband, Hugo Romero-Rodriguez, was wracked with guilt that he couldn't get inside to rescue anything — including their beloved little dog, Coqueta. She was trapped in a crate inside when the vehicle erupted in flames. Romero-Rodriguez suffered cuts on his leg and hand and a burn on his arm trying to get inside to save Coqueta.

"He was sitting there in the driver's seat and he couldn't move," Romero-Sim said Wednesday, recalling how she, her husband and their 9-year-old daughter, Milagros, sat in their truck, watching the RV burn before finally realizing they had to flee their Ventura County neighborhood.

"He just kept watching and he feels so guilty that he couldn't save it," she continued. "I told him he did everything he could and he did what he had to save our lives."

Romero-Rodriguez makes a modest living as a jewelry salesman and he lost the pearls, earrings, bracelets and watches that made up his inventory.

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