The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

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Before the smoke cleared

Originally Published October 29, 2007

Matt Liff, 22, began the morning of Oct. 21 watching football. He had caught reports of the fire that had broken out in Malibu, but wasn’t watching the news.

Blue sky was nowhere to be seen in the Santa Clarita Valley that day. Very little could be seen past the thick cloud of smoke from the fires that combed over Southern California.

The Santa Ana winds had displayed their strength the entire weekend. Trees and light posts were pushed over as easily as a bike without a kickstand. These were the same winds that helped feed the fires that broke out all over California.

One fire, in particular, came too close to home for many families in Santa Clarita. Some weren’t lucky enough to keep their homes. The Liff family was one of many families that had evacuated their home.

Matt was walking to his car after the strong winds had rattled the satellite dish loose and made watching T.V. impossible. He noticed some smoke while driving to a friend’s house to continue watching football.

The smoke that Matt saw was closer than he thought. He was at his friend’s house in Saugus when smoke went from a distant concern to a dense fog. The smoke was from the fire in Agua Dulce.

Matt received a call from his uncle Stewart Liff that afternoon. Stewart’s neighborhood in Saugus was in the direction of the fire and had received a voluntary evacuation. He was already out of danger and wasn’t sure how close the fire was to his home. In the rush to get his family, Stewart had left Matt’s four cats behind in the house.

Matt and his girlfriend, Kimberly Cappiello, had just moved into an apartment in Canyon Country. Stewart had been watching their cats during the moving process.

Matt drove to the apartment to pick up Kim before meeting up with Stewart to get a house key.

Stewart parked his car in a bank parking lot in Valencia to wait for Matt and Kim. He listened to the radio to try to find out how close the fire was to his home. His daughter Jen, son Mark and their grandmother were in tow.

After deciding that there might be some time before the fire got too close, Matt and Kim decided to see if there was anything they could do to get their cats out of danger. Kim began to get nervous while driving to Stewart’s home.

“It was scary to drive towards something that so many other people were driving away from,” Kim said.

As they drove into the neighborhood, Matt and Kim were surprised by how many people were still at their homes. Almost all of the houses had at least one car that was packed and ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

Some of the families that had stayed were taking some steps to try and save their homes. One couple was out in their front yard with a garden hose, spraying the roof and walls to help deflect any embers that could be blowing in the wind. Another family was cutting down a tree and bushes in their yard and piled them away from the house. Some of the homeowners that had already evacuated left their lawn sprinkler systems turned on to try and save their homes.

Many people wandered into streets regardless of any traffic or fire trucks driving past to try to look at the fire through the blanket of smoke covering the area.

Matt and Kim knew that the large amount of fire trucks in the neighborhood meant that the fire was closing in. It was imperative to get the cats as quick as possible and be ready in case there wasn’t any time to rescue them.

Stewart’s home looked untouched as Matt and Kim walked inside. The pool in the backyard had gathered a thin layer of ash on the water’s surface. The wind had blown some furniture into the pool. A couple lawn chairs and a table with an umbrella now sat at the bottom.

It didn’t take long to gather up the cats and get them into the car. After Kim put the last of the cats in the car, she waited as Matt went to get one last thing: his father’s urn. Matt’s father had died just over a year ago and he did not want to leave it there in case the fire reached the house.

Matt called Stewart to let him know they were safe. Matt lied, saying it didn’t look like his house was going to get hit by the fire, trying to make Stewart feel better. In fact, Matt had seen how close the fire had gotten and how fast it was moving. He thought his uncle’s house was going to go.

Kim also received a call from her mother June Cappiello who said that the same fire had expanded into Canyon Country and that she could see the flames from her own street. Like many others, June was watering her home with a garden hose as a precaution. Matt and Kim went to help June after they dropped off the cats at their apartment.

According to Google Maps, the Agua Dulce fire consumed 15 homes and caused an estimated 5,500 home evacuations. The Cappiello’s home did not have to be evacuated, despite being about a quarter of a mile away from the fire. Stewart’s home ultimately was also saved from the fire.

“If it wasn’t for the hard work and bravery of firefighters, then our family’s homes could have been burned down,” Kim said. “Our prayers are with the families who lost their homes, and are also with the firefighters who are still fighting to save the homes and lives of others.”

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