By DUG BEGLEY
Erik Womack awoke to the smell of smoke around 9:30 Saturday morning. Right about the time firefighters went to work on a burning palm tree in front of his house on Garden Ridge in Corona.
"I came outside to doomsday," Womack said Sunday in front of the house he rents, now severely damaged by Saturday's blaze. "Everybody was out here wetting down their roofs and I started doing the same thing."
But possessions and the house were not his first thought. He called to his wife to get their two school-age children, two dogs, two cats and pet bird out of the house.
The neighborhood seethed with activity as burning embers fell from the sky. Firefighters buzzed about trying to put out fires before they engulfed homes. Homeowners using garden hoses spritzed trees and anything else at risk of catching fire.
Womack was scrambling, he said. Getting the family out the door requires a bit more planning than fire evacuations often allow. He figured they had about ten minutes before the evacuations started and he'd have the leave Garden Ridge Drive.
He was wrong.
"About five minutes later three neighbors came over and told us to get out," he said.
"We grabbed the kids and that was it. My wife was in her nightgown."
Everyone was accounted for, except the bird. Womack ran back in despite the heat and smoke filling the house.
"He would have been fried chicken," Womack said of the pet bird.
Firefighters were already working on the house, putting up a fight for the second floor and the garage. Within minutes Womack's home was saved from at least the first blast of fire danger.
But it had also taken a big hit. The fire converted a second-floor bedroom into a charred deck, exposing belongings the family on Sunday was still trying to clear out.
It all happened so fast it was tough for Womack to realize he was just a very early victim of a fire that leapt canyons and charred a path from Brea to Weir Canyon.
The fire was long gone but it's effects on Garden Ridge remained. A pile of rubble filled Womack's driveway, wrapped in yellow caution tape. The relatively untouched upstairs hallway had noticeable additions; two large holes in the ceiling, capped with exposed insulation.
Slumped on a planter wall in front of what's left of his house, Womack was dazed but not defeated as he gathered his things. He was able to salvage many possessions, like photo albums, toys and clothes.
There would be a new home for the family, likely in the same neighborhood, he said. The fire won't keep him away, he said.
Womack said he is happy to have relatives and friends he can rely on. Asked why his house was one of the few in the Green River Drive area damaged, Womack said it was simply fate.
"It's just random man when you've got those hot embers flying around," he sighed. "It's just a game of chance."
Published: Monday, November 17, 2008