From the Ashes

updated 11/17/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/17/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

The menacing plumes of smoke and towering walls of flame have at last subsided. But as California's worst wildfires ever were finally contained last week—thanks to rain, cooler temperatures and more than 15,000 tireless firefighters—their aftermath was a nightmare all its own. Residents of Southern California's devastated suburbs returned to their streets and sifted through the remains of more than 3,500 destroyed homes and 746,000 charred acres. Along with heavy hearts and grief for the 22 casualties, there were stories of good fortune, great sacrifice and heroism.

Financial director Mike Shambach, 44, and wife Barb, 43, woke up early Oct. 26 to the smell of smoke in the San Diego suburb of Scripps Ranch.

MIKE: I turned on the TV, and they were telling us not to be concerned, but our senses were telling us something else. Then a neighbor called and said, "The fire is coming at you." The police came by and said we had five or 10 minutes to evacuate.

BARB: I felt panic and terror running through me. I started grabbing photos and throwing clothes in a suitcase. I grabbed our cat Klarence and some food for him. As we drove away, I could see plumes of smoke and the bright orange sky beyond our home.

MIKE: The ridge across the street was engulfed in flames. It was now a race to get out. After we safely made it to a friend's house six miles away, I began calling home. I figured if the answering machine picked up, the house was okay. I kept getting our machine until 12:30 p.m., when I got nothing. I thought our home was gone.

Mike persuaded a policeman to take him to his home around 4:30 p.m. Amazingly, it was one of only two left standing on his street; all the others had burned to the ground. The reason it survived is unknown, though the Shambachs' flame-retardant, concrete-tile roof was apparently one of several factors.

MIKE: At first, I saw no homes, just chimneys, smoke and flames. When I came around our corner, I saw the top of a roof that looked like mine. It was our house. Everything around it was gone or smoldering, but our house wasn't touched at all. No scorch marks, no windows blown out. I was in shock. I called my neighbors and told them their homes were gone. There was a lot of crying, but they all said it was great somebody's house had made it. [Donations for victims in Scripps Ranch may be sent to the St. Vincent de Paul Village Fire Relief Fund or to the SRCA Fire Relief Fund in San Diego.]

BARB: When I went back, I thought, "This can't be my neighborhood." It looked like a war zone. People were sobbing and overcome with grief about what happened to their homes. I don't feel like we should have been spared. I have survivor's guilt. If we can be of any help to these people, we'll do it.

MIKE: The worst experience for me is the loss of my extended family—my neighbors. There are no kids playing on the street, no people walking their dogs. I can't wait until they come back. People joke with me and say that when they rebuild, my house is going to be an eyesore. When you hear joking like that, you know the healing has begun.

Fellow firefighters call Carolina Finch, 34, "Hog," because of the way she hogs the fire hose. A paramedic in Julian, Calif., 60 miles northeast of San Diego, and a volunteer firefighter in nearby Cuyamaca, Finch had just finished a 24-hour shift driving an ambulance when her fire battalion chief paged her Oct. 27.

The chief put me on an engine over in Cuyamaca and I stayed there all day Monday. On Tuesday the fire overran us, so we had to pull back to the Cuyamaca Fire Station, which is on the next street over from my house. We could see the fire up in the hills, blowing over towards my street. You could hear the propane tanks going off as the fire swept towards the houses. Each one was a big explosion, like a 747 taking off. I would hear a tank go off and I would think, "God, was that one mine?"

We regrouped and went up Yaki Street, which is where I live. As I came around the corner, I saw my house was in flames. The house right next to it was more defensible; a tree and some brush up against it were on fire, but we thought we could put them out and save the house. It was a snap decision. Sure, you want to rush into your own home and save what you can, but you can't do that. I was on the hose line putting out the fire by my neighbor's home as I watched mine burn down.

My mother's funeral urn was in there. So were the last few things she owned. Obviously they are irreplaceable. But even though I lost them, it is nice to see my neighbor's home still there. I want to rebuild in the same spot, and I want my neighbors to be there next to me. You try to keep a positive attitude.

Still, when you look at a burnt-out pile of ashes and you know who lived there, it's hard. It's very emotional to be surrounded by the devastation, and it's going to look like this for a very long time. But I always wanted to live in this town and to be a paramedic, and while I may not have my dream home anymore, I still have my dream. I don't feel unlucky at all.

Ashleigh Roach, 16, wore a red sleeveless gown with princess seams for an Oct. 25 Halloween party at her house in Valley Center, Calif. Late that night, the Roaches—John, 43, and wife Lori, 43—got a frightening call from their other daughter, Allyson, 20.

JOHN: Allyson was driving home and called to say the Rincon Reservation near our house was on fire. We went up by the fire station and saw the fire was moving west, not towards our house. We made some preparations just in case and put our bags by the front door. We took shifts watching the fire through the night, and we all slept in our clothes. About 8:30 we woke up to the very strong smell of smoke. Someone from the sheriff's department came and told us we had 20 minutes to get out. Less than 10 minutes later I opened the front door and was blasted by fire, hot air and burning embers. I yelled for everyone to run. We had six cars in our driveway, and only one can go out at a time.

LORI: Our two daughters got in Allyson's truck, but then Allyson yelled, "I can't find my keys, I dropped my keys!" Ashleigh got out and into a car with Jason [the Roaches' son, 22] and Allyson went with Steve [a friend who attended the party and spent the night]. Steve drove backwards and crashed into a burning bush.

JOHN: Their car went off an embankment and dropped five feet into a gully. The car began to burn. Steve pulled Allyson up onto the driveway, and she got into Jason's car. The trees were completely burning across our road so you had to drive through the flames to get out. It was probably 100 yards of fire and smoke. My car had been first in the driveway, and after I drove through the fire I stopped and waited for the others to come out.

Jason's Mustang hit a car that swerved in front of him, and he crashed into a burning tree. He helped a badly burned Allyson from the car but couldn't see or hear Ashleigh. Believing she was safely out, he guided Allyson through the flames.

LORI: His first words when he came out were, "Where's Ashleigh?"

JOHN: I ran back into the smoke to see if I could get to Ashleigh, but I got only 10 steps because the smoke was choking. The fire department went in and none of them saw Ashleigh. She was still in the car that had started to burn. It was about 45 minutes before they finally found her.

Ashleigh died of smoke inhalation just yards from the fire station. Allyson suffered second-and third-degree burns and is in critical care; she may need 20 operations and 18 months of rehab. Jason was burned on his face and neck.

LORI: One thing we know in our hearts, and that is a comfort to us, is that Ashleigh believed she was going to get out. She wasn't in fear of dying. She was lying down in the back seat, hiding away, totally trusting that everything was going to be fine. That's how they found her, in that position. She came so close to getting out. Obviously we didn't have 20 minutes to get out. But the fire was so unpredictable. It must have looked like a blowtorch coming up the canyon. If it weren't for the sheriff who went door to door desperately trying to get people out, none of us would have gotten out. For that, we are so grateful.

Michelle Bowers in San Diego, Frank Swertlow in Scripps Ranch, Oliver Jones in Julian and Alexis Chiu in Los Angeles

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