“Everything is catching fire around us,” Cynthia Santana said. “We finally start moving and found the fire had crossed the road nobody could get out.”
Santana was reliving the frantic escape from a deadly wildfire in Northern California. She grew up in the South Bay and lost almost everything in the fire.
On Sunday, her high school classmates came together to help her and six other families to recover from the worst fire in California’s history.
Almost 14,000 homes were destroyed in the Camp Fire in Paradise; seven of those homes belong to graduates of Chula Vista High School.
Rhys Ahrenstein, the student body president class of ’88, organized the fundraiser that was held at Diamond Jim’s Nightclub. He was hoping to raise $30,000 to help former classmates with the devastating losses.
“My hope is that with the money each family will just have a great Christmas,” he said. “If they want to get out of town go on vacation because things were tough — go on vacation. Just use that money to make themselves feel a little happier, especially during the holiday times.”
Santana, the class of ’87, said she’s grateful for the outpouring of hometown support.
“I am feeling completely overwhelmed, loved, blessed that so many people that I grew up can still be involved in my life,” she said. “I’m ecstatic about it.”
Touched by the support, Santana said the day the Camp Fire broke out, she thought she smelled smoke. Her husband went outside to check it out, rushed back in and said the house next door was on fire.
They packed their animals and a few belongings into their two cars but Santana lost track of her husband in the chaos and everything around her was catching fire.
“I was getting embers falling all over my car and I kept using windshield wipers to get my car wet,” she said. “And we just kept driving as fast as we can because it was so smoky we couldn’t see anything. We finally saw daylight after 20 minutes of driving and knew that we were safe.”
Santana found her husband a little later. He had a woman and five dogs in his car who needed help getting out.
There were two other classmates who lost their homes to the conflagration. Rick Kane, class of '86, raced home just in time to rescue his son and his in-laws but lost everything, including the family dog.
Andy Nodzak, class of '85, was able to save his nine pets but little else.
Ahrenstein has also set up a GoFundMe to help his former classmates.