Residents affected by Park Hill Fire return home — some to find ashes

A destroyed out building on Las Pilitas Road on Sunday morning.
A destroyed out building on Las Pilitas Road on Sunday morning. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Glenn Westbrook returned to his Las Pilitas Road home Sunday morning, or at least, to the smoldering pile that remained.

“It was pretty much ashes. It was pretty much gone,” Westbrook said. “But thank God I got the boys and the animals out. That’s all that really matters.”

Fire investigators were still determining Sunday how many homes burned in the Park Hill Fire that began shortly after 2 p.m. Saturday and continued to burn Sunday. Westbrook’s mobile home and his landlord’s house on the same 32-acre property were among those destroyed.

Westbrook said he was preparing to barbecue some meat Saturday when he saw fire across the road. His son Patrick, a sophomore at Atascadero High School, and Patrick’s friend rounded up the family goat, rooster and dog before they all headed out just ahead of the flames.

Westbrook, who moved to the site about nine years ago, said he had cleared the ground this spring to keep it safe from fire, but to no avail.

“It wasn’t so much the ground,” he said. “The fire was burning in the trees because of the wind.”

Just by luck, Westbrook parked his work truck and tools at the bottom of the driveway while loading up the boys and the animals in another vehicle and racing out of harm’s way. On Sunday, he found the work truck somehow had survived the capricious flames while everything else on the property was destroyed.

Now he and his son will buy some new clothes at K-Mart and stay with his sister in Atascadero for awhile.

“I’m going to work in the morning,” said Westbrook, who works for a plumbing contractor. “I’m just going to start over.”

On the other side of Las Pilitas Road, Terry and Gayle Farrelly stayed through the fire.

The couple lives in a double-wide mobile home with wood siding and a deck out front that overlooks a barn and corrals.

Terry Farrelly said he was alerted to the danger when he heard reports of the fire on the police radio he keeps strapped to his belt.

His wife and her sister immediately headed up the hill behind their home to help an elderly neighbor. He stayed behind to turn on the pump and snake fire hoses around the property, put the three dogs in the house, bring the two free-ranging horses and a baby burro into the corral, and get ready to do battle if necessary.

“The fire just roared up the draw,” he said, recalling the sounds of howling flames and exploding trees filling the air.

The flames trapped Gayle Farrelly at the neighbor’s home. Paramedics were able to get in and transport the neighbor, who suffered seizures, about an hour later.

On Sunday, the close call was evident, with blackened ground surrounding the Farrelly’s property and coming within about 35 feet of the west side of the house.

The couple said they’ve lived on Las Pilitas Road for 20 years and have worked hard to clear all the brush so just the live oaks shade the land.

“We’ve spent a lot of time weed-whacking — that’s what we do,” Gayle Farrelly said. “We also have the four-legged weed-whackers to help.”

Sheriff’s deputies came by Saturday and told them to evacuate, which they declined to do. When fire trucks came along, the couple offered to refill their water tanks, then kept the driveway free so two fire crews could spend the night parked outside.

The couple said they saw Westbrook leave. “They barely made it out,” Terry Farrelly said.

At the corner of Las Pilitas and Park Hill roads on Sunday, Richard Spinola was cleaning off the red fire retardant that had blanketed his house and vehicles when planes dropped it on the hillside behind his property on Saturday.

Spinola and his teenage son, Logan, were heading home from fishing in Morro Bay when they saw the smoke Saturday. When they got to Las Pilitas Road, flames roared on both sides of them as they drove several miles to get to their house.

“It was coming this way,” Spinola said, standing in his driveway on Sunday.

As the flames approached and he saw burning pine cones rolling down the hill behind his house and onto his yard he, too, decided to stand his ground with the flames. He figured the extensive brush clearing he had done around his property would pay off.

“I wasn’t going to let my house burn down,” he said.

Curtains of fire retardant dropped from the planes and two bulldozers cleared the hill as Spinola pulled out his fire hoses, just in case. Firefighters spent the night on the hill above the house.

On Sunday, Spinola’s wife, Brooke, hung a sign on their fence for firefighters: “Thank you 4 keeping us safe.”

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune