11/05/2007 at 01:00 AM EST
Come fall, wildfires are a constant menace in southern California, when the hot winds known as the Santa Anas can fan the smallest spark into a raging inferno. But even longtime residents had rarely seen anything like this year's version, when winds up to 100 mph carried huge fireballs down the canyons and across the terrain. The fires forced the evacuation of nearly a million people, the largest such displacement in the state's history. More than 1,500 homes were destroyed, and at least two people died. Among the hardest hit areas was Malibu, home to such stars as Mel Gibson and Sally Field, both of whom had to evacuate their homes, as well as Owen Wilson
, Jennifer Aniston
and Jim Carrey, whose houses were safe for the time being. Here, some harrowing tales from the front lines:
ADAM TAKI, 23, a businessman, was at the home in the Malibu hills he shares with his father, Ghazi, along with two friends on Sunday night: It was midnight, and the fire came out of nowhere. It struck like lightning. It wasn't a brush fire, it was a firestorm—a tornado of fire that swooped through the whole neighborhood. For 45 minutes straight, we all had wet cloths around our faces. The house was filled with smoke. Without covering your face you couldn't breathe. We were standing at the front door all praying.
ERNESTO CASILLAS, 38, who owns a driver's ed company, was at his home in Canyon Country, which was completely destroyed: We were just playing video games. We saw some flames and said maybe we should evacuate, and [brother-in-law] Richard said, "No, it's on the other side of the hill." Five minutes later he's screaming, "Get out of the house! It's over the hill!" The winds were so powerful. The tops of palm trees were falling onto other houses like fire bombs.
JERRY McLINN, 36, an electrician, got out of his family's mobile home with wife Shelli and daughter Delaney, 3, in Canyon Country when they saw the flames approaching: One of the things we grabbed was Delaney's favorite stuffed animal Fairy Beary, a Build-A-Bear. That thing cost $80! I said get that bear!
ADAM TAKI: The firefighters were battling the hurricane of fire that swooped over us like a wave. There were 60- to 75-ft. flames flying over the house. It was like a rain of fire. All our palm trees were on fire. There was nowhere we could go. We were at the windows letting the firemen know we were there. They shouted, "Stay in the house! Do not move!" One reason is that if you open the door the burning embers in the wind could sweep right in the front door and ignite the carpet and there's nothing they can do. It was the scariest 45 minutes of my life, watching that fire come by. It definitely crossed my mind we might die there. Especially when, after the storm, the firemen said they'd been scared. They said at one point it was so hot they were about to jump in the house and stand there with us.
GHAZI TAKI: But the thing that's amazing is how the firefighters handled it. They gave us the courage and drive to persevere.
TOM SOLLIE, 49, a retired California Highway Patrol officer, managed to evacuate his elderly mother from her home in Rancho Bernardo, then set about defending the area from the encroaching flames with a neighbor: Larry Hardin and I are up on this roof, and we were wetting it down and we were wrapped in wet towels. Out of nowhere, about five houses to the north, one home just became engulfed in flames in a matter of moments. If it goes to one, it will be a domino effect, and the whole side of the street will go up in flames. Two golf-course workers see us and jump in to help. We're grabbing every garden hose we can find. These two kids, they were about 25, also come along. They'd been about 30 miles away watching and thought maybe they could be of assistance. They were lifesavers. In about 10 minutes we had six or seven of us hitting the house with garden hoses. To our surprise we are making a dent. We're not putting it out, but we're not letting it spread. The flames are not able to jump. We're all covered in black soot and ash. It looks like God was smiling on us because it worked out. Just that one house was destroyed. We saved the houses to the right and the left.
This was my childhood home. We'd lived here since 1964. This house means so much to me. It's our family home. Somebody had to make a stand.