PALA MESA — John Knapp said that he didn’t know what to expect when he returned to his home near the rear of the Rancho Monserate Country Club on Friday morning.
To his surprise, his home was still standing. Three houses down, however, wind-fueled flames leveled his neighbor’s unit and about four other units, the destruction taking a hopscotch path down his lane in the community.
“I’m stunned, I thought I saw it burning on TV,” Knapp said. “I expected to come here this morning and find it like all these other ones.”
“It’s amazing how the fire will skip one, and then take one, and then skip one, and take one,” Knapp said. “Or in the case of the rows above me, take like all of them.”
The terrace above Knapp’s home revealed the sheer devastation of the Lilac fire, which started just across the street from the mobile home community in the shadows of Interstate 15. The fire, fueled by powerful Santa Ana winds, raced west into the park, catching residents by surprise.
“I left around 11:45 (a.m.), Knapp said. “It was too much for me even then.”
As of Friday afternoon, the fire had consumed 4,100 acres and destroyed at least 65 structures, many of them inside of 232-unit Rancho Monserate community. Mother Nature gave firefighters a big assist overnight and into Friday, as gentle breezes replaced the gale-force winds that fueled the flames most of Thursday.
Smoldering ruins are all that remained of dozens of homes inside of the park, with personalized mailboxes the only thing left to identify the residences.
Fire crews and deputies still remained Friday morning, with fire fighters hosing down smoldering “hot spots” that could ignite if the winds pick up. Deputies stood sentinel at the entrance, keeping most residents from checking on their homes, as an evacuation order remained in place.
One woman, who declined to be interviewed, stood at the entrance, calling for her 1-year-old Bassett hound, Chester.
“Chester! Chester, come!” she screamed over and over. The dog had been missing since around 8 p.m., when animal control came to the home to try to rescue it.
A sheriff’s deputy took the woman around the complex to look for the dog, but when a reporter asked another nearby sheriff’s deputy if they found the dog, he solemnly shook his head.
“It’s been gone for nearly 12 hours,” he said. “I don’t know.”
Meanwhile, Knapp, who tried to pick away red flecks of fire retardant left on his minivan by an air drop on Thursday, said he hadn’t fully grasped the totality of the devastation around him, but that it did make him think twice about living at the mobile home park.
“For the first 12 years, I don’t think I had second thoughts, but now I might,” he said.
Knapp, however, was grateful to the firefighters who worked tirelessly to save as many homes as possible.
“Those guys are either crazy or terrific, or both,” Knapp said. “When I was leaving, I drove by one and told him, ‘Be safe, but don’t let this one burn.’ And they didn’t.”