Feelings of relief and sadness expressed as Fairview fire evacuees return to Hemet-area homes – San Bernardino Sun

Katie Kivett was relieved that the home where she, her parents and four brothers live in the rural, rocky canyon just minutes east of Hemet survived the Fairview fire, but like other neighbors who have returned to good news, her thoughts were also with those who were left to literally pick up the pieces.

“Heartbreaking. That’s the only word you can use,” Kivett, 22, said Monday, Sept. 12, as she stood on the shoulder of Gibbel Road in front of her home. “So many of these homes are completely gone and who knows if they will be able to come back.”

She and others spoke about their close brush with the flames that have claimed the lives of two people, critically burned a third and destroyed 21 structures while burning on 28,307 acres. No one could be seen Monday on the Gibbel Road properties where homes, with their family pictures and other mementos, were destroyed. The piles of rubble spoke for those residents.

The heavy rains Sunday evening added to the woes in Avery Canyon and other areas affected by the fire. Mud overflowed a creek, and with the flames having killed off the vegetation that helps hold hillsides together, the ooze cascaded down hillsides. Monday morning, road crews scraped much of the muck off the twisty, two-lane road.

“This has changed a lot of our minds about how we have to worry about fires,” Kivett said. “This is the first time we’ve ever had a fire this large come through the canyon. We’ve had an El Niño, we’ve had tons of water and floods. But it’s never been this bad because normally the brush on the hillside protects us. But this year we don’t have any of that brush.”

The last of the evacuation warnings for Avery Canyon were lifted Sunday night. Some residents had returned that day or Saturday. On Monday, a chainsaw whirred in the distance and a restoration company representative visited homes that while still standing, were filled with smoke and ash. A truck delivering mail bounced along a long, steep dirt driveway. An insurance adjuster toured a property where a mobile home and a car were charred.

Some evacuation warnings remained in effect Monday, however, for the most rural areas of the Fairview fire.

And in San Bernardino County, evacuation warnings for the 1,079-acre Radford fire near Big Bear Lake were canceled as containment grew to 68% on Monday.

Bill Nealeigh, 55, and wife Michelle Nealeigh, 52, were still cleaning the exterior of their Gibbel Road home on Monday after returning Sunday.

For 21 years, they have lived on the eight acres on a hillside near the top of Gibbel, between one sign warning of a deer crossing and another advising that the pavement is ending. They enjoy the open spaces and views of the canyon and yet, Bill noted, it’s only nine minutes to Lowe’s.

They feel fortunate that their damage was minor: a few trees were singed and a utility wagon burned. Flames crept right up to the backyard, within a few feet of their pool.

“It’s a relief. It’s a lot of memories with the kids,” said Bill Nealeigh.

He pointed out neighbors’ homes on the hillside across the canyon that no longer stood.

“It’s sad when you look on the hill and three homes burned,” Michelle Nealeigh said.

Gibbel Road in Avery Canyon east of Hemet is burnt on both sides from the Fairview fire. Residents on Sept. 12, 2022, continued to return as evacuation orders were eased. Residents say they value the peace in the Canyon, which is only minutes from the city. (Brian Rokos, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Bill Nealeigh said he’s known that fire is a threat in the canyon in the 21 years they’ve lived there, and he used a tractor to cut a wide fire break around the house.

The cuts on their arms and legs attested to their chaotic departure when the flames blew toward them on Labor Day.

Bill Nealeigh saw the smoke, and Michelle began packing at a leisurely pace as he watered down the grounds, which include a pool and a two-story garage that he built. But then the wind picked up.

“I could feel the westerly wind and I knew it was coming for us,” he said.

“Now I’m shoving stuff in my suitcase,” Michelle Nealeigh said, pantomiming furiously.

She tried to herd their cat, which explains the cuts on her arms. Bill Nealeigh placed their two Australian Shepherds in their RV, but one escaped, forcing him to make an open-field tackle.

Bill Nealeigh drove the RV and his wife took the wheel of their SUV. On the way down the hill, she filmed the fire cresting the ridge on her right. She could be heard breathing hard and praying.

“It was a puff of smoke in the sky and all of a sudden it was here,” she said.

“It was explosive,” Bill Nealeigh said.

The couple stayed with his parents in Temecula. He works for the Eastern Municipal Water District, which services the area, so he was able to check on his home during the fire.

Jorge Terrones, who along with wife Luc has lived next door to the Nealeigh family for 19 years, expressed joy and relief after hastily evacuating shortly after the fire started — even though he at first believed the fire would never make it to his home.

“You cannot predict Mother Nature. Fire is the most scary,” he acknowledged. “I think everyone was concerned their house was going to burn down.”

Kivett and her family were alerted to the fire when the electricity flickered as they played video games. Her father went to check on the laundry, and soon after a sheriff’s deputy warned them of the approaching danger.

She learned that her home survived when she saw her neighbor’s home burning on television but that hers was not. Those neighbors, the Huertas, are one of more than two dozen people who have established GoFundMe pages to get help in the disaster. The Huertas were uninsured, Kivett said, and with the parents both disabled, did not have the ability to create a fire break.

Kivett said she believed her home survived because of the work of firefighters and the fire break her brother cut around their property.

“It’s amazing that what’s standing is still standing,” she said.

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