Official’s hardest words: ‘Your house is gone’

SILVERADO, Calif. — Like many fire captains, Bill Lockhart spent the first days of the Santiago fire sweaty, exhausted and teary-eyed from smoke and lack of sleep.

But after 56 hours on the fire line, he switched to a new assignment — one that taxed him emotionally. It was now his job to tell families their homes were destroyed.

“We don’t just say, ‘Your house burned down. You’re on your own.’ We take them there,” he said.

Lockhart was one of two Orange County fire captains working a little-known duty. As an “occupant liaison,” he helped track down more than a dozen families, starting with county tax records, then talking with neighbors who had not evacuated to locate them. He made the dreaded calls, then took homeowners to survey the damage, accompanied by a chaplain and a counselor.

The Santiago fire has destroyed 16 homes in Orange County’s canyons. Although the burned areas were still under an evacuation order, the fire department made exceptions for those who lost homes, shuttling them through the moonscape terrain and giving them time to reflect on the damage and search for belongings.

“Unfortunately, there’s rarely a lot left,” said Capt. Dave Steffen, one of the liaisons. “It was incredible how consuming this fire was.”

Visitors used the time to come to terms with the destruction. Some sought a technical explanation of how their homes burned.

“It’s just closure,” said Gabriel Ruiz, 32, surveying the remnants of his parents’ home on Modjeska Grade Road, now a blackened maze of wood and metal. “You have to see it to believe it.”

His wife, Georgiana, 30, said her only wish was that her 2-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son would never see the destruction.

“This was Grandma’s house. This was the comfort zone,” she said.

A yellow fire hose, burned into short sections, lay in the driveway, a sign of firefighters’ hasty retreat.

Fire Chaplain Robert Benoun stood aside as Gabriel picked up a framed photo of his son that had withstood the fire.

“You have to take it in to let it go,” Benoun said.

The fire captains on liaison duty also filled the role of counselor. They listened to people upset with firefighters for not saving their homes and those who were puzzled by the apparent randomness of the destruction.

“Even though we didn’t lose that many homes in this fire, we lost the most important home, and that’s your home,” Lockhart told Abraham Nasiri, who asked why his Williams Canyon home burned while his next-door neighbor’s did not.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

A big decision for Boeing’s next CEO: Is it time for a new plane?

As Boeing faces increased competition from Airbus, the company is expected to appoint a new CEO by the end of the year.

A Mukilteo Speedway sign hangs at an intersection along the road in Mukilteo. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Mukilteo Speedway name change is off to a bumpy start

The city’s initial crack at renaming the main drag got over 1,500 responses. Most want to keep the name.

Two workers walk past a train following a press event at the Lynnwood City Center Link Station on Friday, June 7, 2024, in Lynnwood, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Trains up and running on Lynnwood Link — but no passengers quite yet

Officials held an event at the Lynnwood station announcing the start of “pre-revenue” service. Passengers still have to wait till August.

Nedra Vranish, left, and Karen Thordarson, right browse colorful glass flowers at Fuse4U during Sorticulture on Friday, June 7, 2024, in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
A promenade through Everett’s popular Sorticulture garden festival

Check out a gallery of the festival’s first day.

Left to right, Everett Pride board members Ashley Turner, Bryce Laake, and Kevin Daniels pose for a photo at South Fork Bakery in Everett, Washington on Sunday, May 26, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Second Everett Pride aims for even bigger rainbow of festivities

Organizers estimated about 3,000 people attended the first block party in Everett. This year, they’re aiming for 10,000.

HRT Rescue Technician Andy Toyota gives the thumbs-up to crew members in the Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue helicopter shortly before takeoff during an interagency training session held by Northwest Regional Aviation on Thursday, June 13, 2024, at the Arlington Airport in Arlington, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
From around state, authorities simulate ‘terrorist attack’ in Arlington

Teams from King County, Snohomish County and elsewhere converged for a multi-faceted scenario Thursday at the Arlington Municipal Airport.

The I-5, Highway 529 and the BNSF railroad bridges cross over Union Slough as the main roadways for north and southbound traffic between Everett and Marysville. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Highway 529 squeeze starts now between Everett, Marysville

Following a full closure for a night, starting late Sunday, Highway 529 will slim down to two lanes for months near the Snohomish River Bridge.

5 Snohomish County sisters accused of $1M fraud scheme

For two years, the women used online return postage to get gift cards, then returning the physical items to a brick-and-mortar store, charges say.

FILE — Michael Whitaker, Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, testifies before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Feb. 6, 2024. Whitaker told a Senate panel, on Thursday, June 13, 2024, that changes are being made to the agency’s oversight of Boeing, including conducting more safety inspections. (Anna Rose Layden/The New York Times)
Boeing discloses new quality problem on 787 Dreamliner jets

The issue affects jets built in South Carolina that have yet to be delivered, the company said in a statement.

Alvin Cooper (Photo provided by Marysville School District)
After allegations, Marysville schools’ HR director resigns

Last week, the district’s finance director Lisa Gonzales publicly called for the school board to put Alvin Cooper on leave, citing mismanagement.

Leslie Davis, left, and Lyndsay Lamb, twin sister stars of HGTV's "Unsellable Houses" and 2004 Snohomish High School graduates, donated a private design session to the school's auction fundraiser for their 20-year reunion. (Photo provided)
Got $2,000? Bid on face time with HGTV’s ‘Unsellable Houses’ twins

The sisters are offering up themselves in a fundraiser for their Class of 2004 Snohomish High 20-year reunion.

Fake gun sends Cascade High School into lockdown

Police detained a suspect with a fake weapon around 12:30 p.m. The lockout was lifted before 1:30 p.m.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.