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'It didn't have to happen'

Santiago Canyon:

Last Sunday, Ben Viloria, 57, and his wife, Susan, were in Laguna Beach celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary, but he could not fully concentrate on the occasion. He noticed that it was extremely windy and thought that authorities should shut down a stretch of nearby Santiago Canyon Road.

"That's what I was concerned about, some arsonist," Viloria said. "It didn't have to happen. Whoever did this put all these lives and all these properties in jeopardy."

All around him, homes are charred, and some tree stumps are still smoking. Fifty hand crews and firefighters marched into his neighborhood just minutes after neighbors fled Tuesday morning. A volunteer firefighter friend gave him updates all Tuesday and ultimately came to his home with tears in his eyes, saying, "You can't stay. You can't stay." The friend looked at Viloria's son and said, "Don't let him stay."

He and his 29-year-old son defied the evacuation order as long as possible. The last thing he did before leaving was turn on his Rainbird sprinkler, which firefighters say could have helped protect the home. When he returned from his brief evacuation, he saw that though the fire had burned just feet away, his house had survived.

"With a natural fire, at least you can say it was an accident, but this was not an accident," he said.

--Hector Becerra


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