San Diego

Neighbors Help Neighbors as West Fire Forces Residents and Animals Out

The entire San Diego County community stepped up to the plate Friday to help their neighbors in Alpine forced to evacuate their homes due to the threat of the once-raging West Fire.

The fire sparked just before noon and residents in the area were immediately evacuated. It quickly grew to 400 acres and though Cal Fire was able to halt its forward spread by 4 p.m., it had already reduced multiple homes to ash.

Thirty-nine families were registered at an overnight evacuation center set up at El Cajon’s Los Coches Creek Middle School, including Alba Stanfill, her two kids and their cat.

“It’s one of those crazy things you can’t know unless you’ve experienced this before,” Stanfill said of her frantic evacuation. “I watch other fires in other areas on the news and I feel sorry for those people but you really don’t understand that until it happens. It’s a panic mode.”

Stanfill said for a moment she was overcome with frustration as she fought against time deciding what to take and what to leave behind.

“Your entire life is in your house,” she said. Stanfill’s home is on South Grade Road where not every home is still standing.

Eventually, like most people, she settled on the irreplaceable. She had her kids take down every photo hanging on the wall while she gathered hand-crafted items and memorabilia she’s had since her teen years.

Despite a closet full of nice clothes, she only grabbed one pair of shoes. Everything else, she said, was replaceable.

Stanfill told an amazing story of a neighbor who drove by and saw her struggling to cram her family’s life in her sedan. He had an SUV with plenty of space, so he backed into her driveway and told her to start filling it up.

At the end of the day, Stanfill said, that’s why we’re all here – to help each other.

Once she got out safe, she couldn’t help but worry about the fate of her home.

“Am I going to have a home to go to or not? What am I going to do if it burns down? Where am I going to go?” she thought.

Stanfill said soon after she learned her house would be OK and all of her stress melted away, and she credited the “unbelievably wonderful” American Red Cross and San Diego Humane Society’s hands-on approach.

The humane society was on site at the shelter helping families with small pets. She said her cat was frightened and began hyperventilating, but humane society staff was able to calm her down and get her to sleep in a crate they provided.

Not everyone was as lucky as Stanfill, though.

Jenson Shoaf was at home with his sister, cat, and dog when the fire started. In what seemed like a blink of an eye, the flames were closing in on his property. Flashbacks from previous fires entered his brain. In 2007 he lost his dog to smoke inhalation.

This time it’s his house that he could lose.

“It’s such a sad sight,” Shoaf said. “It really makes you think.”

In Lakeside, volunteers worked around the clock to tend to livestock and other large animals brought to the rodeo facility. Most of them were brought there by Good Samaritans who picked them up after they were turned loose.

Lakeside resident Kathie Kosanke was around for the fires in 2003 and 2007 and remembers how scary it is when you’re forced to abandon your home and pets. She has a big heart for animals and volunteers, so she picked up food and water for both and drop it off at the rodeo.

“I feel so horrible that people are losing their homes and that animals are having to be turned loose because there’s no way to move all of them.” She said.

And of course, she remembers the tragedy of the Lilac Fire last winter and the huge blow it dealt to the local horse racing community.

But togetherness was the theme when hearing from evacuees and volunteers Friday. Even in the chaos there were people – neighbors, friends and strangers -- who stopped to help other people, and horses, and goats and even alpacas, too.

Cal Fire said it would update the community on the status of the West Fire on Saturday at around 7 a.m.

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