Caretaker recounts saving ‘home’ from LA wildfire

Caretaker recounts saving ‘home’ from LA wildfire

17 October 2008

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USA — Robert Hiller walked up to the ridge in front of the abandoned hillside missile site where he’s lived for nearly two decades, looking for some sign of a wildfire he thought was miles away.

He found a raging blaze coming at him from three directions.

“I saw the flames looking at me from the west, the north and the south,” Hiller said by phone from a Los Angeles motel Wednesday night.

He decided to stay and take on the fire.

“There’s only two ways in and out of that area,” he said. “Either you go up the mountain or you go down the mountain. I could have ended up burned on the road.”

Hiller, a 44-year-old former Ventura County Sheriff’s deputy, has worked since 1990 as the city’s property manager for the site and has lived there in a six-room military quarters. The military, which based Nike anti-aircraft missiles there during the Cold War, abandoned the spot in 1973. It now sits empty but for the occasional film shoot or police exercise.

On Monday morning, Hiller was right in the path of the biggest of the wildfires that raged along the edges of the San Fernando Valley this week. The fires were nearly contained Thursday night.

Hiller at least had far more than garden hoses to fight the approaching blaze — the military had left behind a 30,000-gallon water tank, two hydrants and some powerful hoses. And he could escape to the site’s old fallout shelter, if necessary.

He loaded his dog, guns and valuable papers into his truck in case he had to flee. He then donned heavy work clothes and goggles, stood in his doorway and started spraying water.

A wave of flame covered his goggles with soot and debris, he said. The wind-whipped fire took about 90 seconds to pass over the property.

“It moved that fast,” he said. And he briefly celebrated.

“At this point I feel like I survived that,” he said. “I’m still shocked that I don’t have any help. No fire department, no helicopters, nothing.”

But when he looked around, he saw that four buildings were burning, including one connected to his own.

He grabbed a hose and climbed to the roof to attack the blaze.

A pair of sheriff’s deputies arrived to help him evacuate but he refused.

“It’s home,” he said. “I didn’t want to consider giving up or bailing. I have everything I’ve acquired for all that time there.”

For about an hour and a half, he fought back the flames from the rooftop. Friends said they saw video of him taken by television news helicopters. A photographer briefly stopped by and helped him with a hose before moving on.

Then a fire truck appeared.

“This is the first time that I actually have hope,” he recalled. “Another 10, 15 minutes I would have lost it. I was probably only 10 feet away from open flame.”

The firefighters hooked hoses onto his hydrants, sprayed down the buildings, and even called in helicopter water drops, dousing the rest of the flames.

Every building on the site was destroyed except the one he called home.

Hiller said he drove himself to a hospital and was treated for smoke inhalation and burns on his hands.

He returned to the site later in the day to find his home on fire again, he said, but this time he jumped in his vehicle, found a fire truck and had the crew follow him back to extinguish the flames.

Hiller did not know if the city would still need his services as property manager at the site.

“It’s a moonscape around there now,” he said.

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