One oceanfront home collapsed in flames Thursday afternoon, another was destroyed and a firefighter was hospitalized in a six-alarm blaze in Sunset Beach.
But amid the chaos, an anonymous hero--a stuntman taping a TV pilot nearby--pulled off a dramatic rescue, dashing into a cloud of black smoke to save a woman inside one of the burning houses.
"It was unbelievable," one witness said.
The fire, which also shut down traffic on PCH, bedeviled authorities. Six hours after it began, a third home was ablaze, and another engine was rushing to the scene.
Just after midnight, firefighters controlled the blaze, but three engines remained on the scene throughout the night, said Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Greg McKeown. One firefighter slipped and fell on a roof and was taken to a hospital.
Along with dozens of neighbors and his three young grandsons, Jimmy Yanez stood on the beach and watched the flames hollow out his 4-year-old, custom-built home.
Earlier, stuntmen Mehdi Meral, Yacine Rahba and the rest of a TV crew filming a pilot a few houses away were on the beach when they heard surfers shouting, “That house is on fire!”
They ran to Yanez’s home and banged on the walls.
“We saw two women and [some] children run out,” said Meral. “The kids were crying, and she was saying, ‘I can’t believe everything is gone.’ At first we didn’t see or smell anything and 10 minutes later, both houses were burning.”
As Meral and Rahba tried to make sure everyone was out, and a surfer tried to help with a garden hose, another stuntman risked his life to save a woman inside the home that would eventually collapse.
“I saw him take a deep breath and run into black smoke,” said Rahba. "It was unbelievable."
Meral added, “It seemed like forever, but he came back through the smoke with a woman. He had her in a bear hug with a white shirt over her mouth. She didn’t even know the house was on fire. I think she was in a panic.”
“He saved her life,” Rahba said. “He is a Mideastern hero in America.”
The stuntman, who asked not to be named, said the woman seemed confused and afraid.
“Someone was saying, ‘There is someone in the house,’ so I ran in,” he said. “The lady did not know the house was on fire. I think she was a maid. I think she thought I was trying to rob her. I told her the house was on fire and just grabbed her and put the cloth I was using over her mouth. Now I think I need oxygen. I feel sick, but [the firefighters] have been busy, and I don’t want to bother them.”
The fire appeared to start in one multi-story home—which collapsed just before 5:30 p.m.—and spread to two neighboring residences in the 16500 block of Pacific Coast Highway, according to the Orange County Fire Authority's McKeown. Firefighters were called in at 4:51 p.m. Neighbors speculated that a charcoal grill fell over, starting the blaze.
Three homes sustained heavy damage, McKeown said. One person was being treated for minor smoke inhalation.
Yanez, despite losing his home, said he felt relieved.
“The kids got out. That’s all that matters,” he said. “It’s not about the house. It’s about the kids.”
“I got a voicemail message that the house was on fire, and when I got home, the kids were sitting on the beach watching the house burn.”
The children watched and worried about their family’s two pet turtles, which could not be rescued in time.
Yanez’s wife had picked up the grandkids from school—the youngest is in preschool, and the older two attend St. Bonaventure in Huntington Beach. They were inside their home when the fire spread rapidly from next door.
Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley firefighters joined the Orange County Fire Authority to battle the flames, McKeown said.
Firefighters got out of the home before it collapsed, according to McKeown, who said strong winds posed an additional challenge for firefighters as they worked to keep the flames from spreading. The main concern, however, was that radiant heat from the blaze could cause neighboring homes to burn, he added.
Pacific Coast Highway was closed to traffic for hours from Seal Beach Boulevard to Warner Avenue in Huntington Beach. The closure also backed up traffic into Long Beach and up Seal Beach Boulevard toward the San Diego Freeway (405). Many people returning from work were unable to get to their homes in Sunset Beach. A trickle of men in suits and ties and women in heels left their cars and could be seen trudging over the Anaheim Bay bridge to get home Thursday evening.
More Good Reads on Los Alamitos-Seal Beach Patch: