Claremonters remember the ‘Fire from hell’

Elvira and John Caliri stand amid the rubble of their Palmer Canyon home in November 2003 shortly after The Grand Prix Fire leveled 44 homes in the canyon. The fire came through Claremont on October 25 that year, destroying 65 homes. Courier photo/Trish Branley

by Steven Felschundneff |

The front page of the Wednesday October 29, 2003 edition of the Claremont Courier had a full page photo of a burning hillside with the headline “Fire from hell.”

“Behaving in a manner apt for its name as the Grand Prix Fire, the conflagration that literally sped through Claremont on its way west Saturday night and Sunday morning at one point consumed an astounding 2,700 acres in a two-hour period,” wrote veteran reporter Patricia Yarborough.

Next week marks the 20th anniversary of the fast moving firestorm that tore through Claremont October 25 and 26, 2003, leaving scorched land and burned homes in its path.

As the smoke cleared Sunday morning, 65 homes in town had been destroyed, 44 in Palmer Canyon alone. Fourteen homes in Claraboya were lost, with another 15 damaged. Four burned down in Padua Hills and another three on Mills near the Claremont Hills Wilderness Park.

Evelyn Gault, second from right, speaks to the media in the days after here Mountain Avenue home was destroyed in the Grand Prix Fire. Courier photo/Trish Branley

Just days after the fire, Palmer Canyon resident Elvira Caliri told the Courier that she and her husband John got little notice that they had to leave.

“At 7:30 p.m. on Saturday neighbors were calling and saying it looked like we had to get out,” she said.

The canyon was evacuated at about 11 p.m. that evening.

The couple lost two Palmer Canyon homes, one of which they had bought just two weeks before the fire.

During a city council meeting later that month, then City Manager Glenn Southard said the fires were the worst the city had ever witnessed. The Courier reported that the fire had caused $12 million in damages for lost structures and another $6 million in personal property that was destroyed. Southard cautioned the actual cost could soar to $30 million.

Approximately 650 residents evacuated their homes and many hunkered down in emergency shelters at the Hughes Community Center and Claremont High School.

Fortunately, no Claremont residents were killed, but five people died from heart attacks brought on by the stress of the combined Grand Prix and Old fires.

The Grad Prix Fire started on October 21 in Coyote Canyon just west of Interstate 15 in Fontana. The Old Fire was intentionally set on October 25 in San Bernardino’s Waterman Canyon and the two fires quickly merged.

A witness saw a man, later identified as Rickie Lee Fowler, toss a lit flare from a van in Waterman Canyon that morning. From there the fire quickly spread with the help of strong Santa Ana winds.

According to Wikipedia, on August 15, 2012, Fowler was convicted of five counts of murder and two counts of arson. A month later a jury returned a verdict of death.

The 14 large fires that struck Southern California that October have been called “The California Fire Siege of 2003.” In total, the wildfires scorched more than 738,000 acres, destroyed more than 3,600 homes, killed 25 people and cost $142 million to fight, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Saturday night October 25, longtime Padua Hills residents Bill and Carol Wiese were headed to bed around 11 p.m. Carol had been watching the news but when she went to say good night to the couple’s 16-year-old son Jack, the teen said “mom, the fire is here.” The family made their way to Padua Hills Theatre where they had seen fire personnel gathered during a previous fire. But this time the parking lot was empty. Just then, a police car came down the roadway and the officer said, “yeah, you need to get out now. I just evacuated Palmer Canyon.”

A burned out shell of an car and a leveled home is all that remains at this Claraboya property following the Grand Prix fire in October 2003. Courier photo/Trish Branley

They frantically packed three cars with their possessions and prepared to leave, but first tried to warn some neighbors. One family was asleep and did not answer the door and had the harrowing experience of evacuating once the street was ablaze.

The Wieses sheltered at a friend’s house on Independence Drive, reasoning that the homes had tile roofs and large lots. However, around 2 a.m. they were ordered to evacuate again. Wiese describes the wind as being so fierce that she could barely close the car door. As the caravan turned onto Pomello Drive she could see straight up the canyon and the fire was coming directly at them. She said the embers were the size of baseballs and the air was so thick with smoke they could scarcely breathe.

Suddenly, a firefighter appeared with a bull horn and instructed everyone to “stop, roll up the windows and let the fire roll over you.”

“I have never been so afraid in my entire life, I thought I was going to see my son die,” Wiese said. But just as the firefighter said, within a few seconds the fire did roll over them and they were able to leave.

Wiese described the scene on Mills Avenue as surreal with deer, horses and people escaping the flames.

“It was horrifying and it took me a long time to get over it,” Wiese said.

The Wieses were among the lucky ones who returned to a mostly intact home. There was some damage to the structure near the roof line and all of their landscaping was scorched.

Around that same time Gina and Jim Gibson received word that they had just five minutes to leave their home on Vía Espirito Santos in Claraboya.

Gina Gibson said the couple often stayed up late, and in the early hours of that Sunday they were still both awake. Her husband had been watching the news but was not overly concerned about the fire reaching them.

At about 1 a.m. the police drove by and warned everyone in the neighborhood they had five minutes to get out. Gibson said her husband was reluctant to leave, stating he had been through fires before. Besides, he did not want to leave the home he called his “dream house.”

Gibson describes the Santa Ana winds as being fierce, which was backed up by a fire captain who told the Courier’s Yarborough the winds had been clocked at 100mph that evening.

A short time later some La Verne police officers were able to convince Jim that it was time to go.

“I will be eternally grateful to the police who came by and convinced him to go,” Gibson said.

The couple drove down to Base Line Road, parked the car and watched their neighborhood burn. Unfortunately, theirs was one of the 14 homes destroyed that night in Claraboya.

The couple had left with the clothes on their backs and some possessions stuffed into their vehicle. Jim Gibson was wearing his pajamas and Gina was in flip flops, shorts and a tank top. So a couple of days later she bought them both new wardrobes.

“It was quite an experience, I would not wish it on anyone,” Gibson said. “We survived the fire and eventually rebuilt and moved back in.”

Gibson remembers feeling mystified at the capriciousness of a fire that would destroy one house like hers, while leaving two right next door untouched. She said it was like that across Claraboya, homes seemingly randomly taken down. However, she expressed gratitude that the entire hillside didn’t burn down because as the couple rebuilt, all of their old neighbors were still there.

There has not been a significant wildfire in Claremont since the Grand Prix Fire, which means we are overdue. And as we have seen across the state, fires seem to be getting bigger and more ferocious.

However, since then, agencies like CalFire have been working to make homes more resilient during wildfires. If a home is in a high fire hazard zone, the resident must create defensible space around the structure, including creating a five-foot ember-resistant zone and requiring that ornamental plants known to burn be removed. Trees and shrubs up to 100 feet from the home must be pruned and thinned and all flammable vegetation and dead wood must be removed.


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