The resident of a Cambria home that erupted in flames during the early hours of May 29 is recovering from severe burns in a Los Angeles-area hospital as owners of the mostly destroyed PineKnolls neighborhood house begin the rebuilding process.
Sherry Hilber, who rented the house, underwent skin-grafting surgery May 30 and had been in the intensive-care burn unit of West Hills Hospital and Medical Center but was recently transferred to a burn-unit room.
A nurse said Tuesday that “she’s doing better, resting, taking one day at a time.” The nurse didn’t know if more surgery would be needed, and if so, when it might be done.
Meanwhile, a hospital social worker is trying to locate and contact any family members, close friends and colleagues of the woman who is fiercely protective of her privacy.
Hilber is the founder of Rx Laughter, a nonprofit that conducts research and educates on the therapeutic value of comedy care, especially for children and those struggling with serious emotional and physical challenges. She was a veteran prime-time programming executive for the ABC and CBS networks and also is a writer and script analyst, according to her bio information on IMDB.com.
The cause of the intense blaze that shocked the neighborhood and beyond is still under investigation as of Monday, according to Cambria Fire Chief William Hollingsworth, fire investigators and insurance company representatives.
Officials had been unable to interview Hilber to learn what she remembers of the blaze that essentially destroyed the two-bedroom home, which is owned by David and Mary Hill of Belmont.
Some neighbors who rallied during the fire to help Hilber — whom none of them knew well enough to even know her name — said she was ambulatory but in shock and understandably confused when they responded to the repeated screams for help from the badly burned woman who was by then outside of her home.
Night owl Sheri Humphreys lives down the street, and about 1:30 a.m., thought she heard someone yelling.
“As soon as I walked into my kitchen, I could see the fire,” Humphreys said. “The flames were huge, up into the sky.”
Fearing the fire might be at the home of her friends, Tom and Verna Weaver, Humphreys “called 911 really fast, got in my car and drove down there.”
It was the house next door.
Humphreys parked, “laid on the horn” to alert her friends and saw “a woman standing between the two houses, yelling for help,” she said.
Meanwhile, according to Tom Weaver, he and his wife heard Hilber “pounding on our side door, yelling ‘Help! Fire! Help! Fire!’”
They rushed out and found Humphreys — a retired emergency-room nurse with experience in a burn unit — assisting the injured woman, which she did until the ambulance arrived. The Weavers brought Hilber a robe, which Humphreys wrapped carefully around her to protect her injured body.
“I was so impressed about what a wonderful job she did of saving herself,” Humphreys said of Hilber. “She yelled so loudly, so constantly” until help arrived.
Thomas Weaver said Hilber has been an extraordinarily private neighbor for the past year or so, rarely seen and not a “hello-howdy” kind of person. “For a while, we didn’t think anybody was living there,” he said.
“The blinds were always closed,” and some other windows were blocked off with a black barrier, he added.
Since then, the Hills have been dealing with the loss of the home they’d planned to retire to in March. Their Bay Area home had an attic fire in 1998, and the Pinewood Drive fire has revived painful memories of the previous incident.
David Hill said they had nothing of their own in the Cambria house.
They had dreams attached to the home, but no real memories of it yet. However, it was Mary Hill’s dream home, according to her husband.
When the couple decided to retire in Cambria, “she’d seen this house for months,” he said. “She said, ‘This is the house I want.’ She loved it … the openness, the windows, the little view of the ocean, the two oaks. The grandkids call it the climbing tree house. So, we bought it.
“It was a beautiful home,” he added, “and it will be again.”
Cambria contractor/property manager Mike O’Sullivan, Mary Hill’s brother, is helping to make that happen.
He’s managing the project to salvage anything belonging to Hilber that can be saved, then demolish and rebuild the house. He’s searched for but hasn’t found the cell phone Hilber desperately wants. He’s also combed the wreckage looking for her car keys — the Toyota sedan appears to be OK, but he said it definitely needs to be washed, soon, to remove contaminants that could damage the vehicle’s finish.
Damage to the home’s interior is extensive, O’Sullivan said.
“The roof structure is gone,” and the middle, living-area and kitchen sections of the home were essentially incinerated, he said.
Hollingsworth has reiterated his original estimate that the roaring blaze destroyed 65 percent of the structure itself.
Firefighters found and saved a singed photo album, the contractor said.