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Nerves fraying in Portola Hills

October 22, 2007 |  4:06 pm

Several hundred residents gathered at a park in the Portola Hills housing development in southeast Orange County to watch the black smoke billow two ridges away and the orange flames jump over the ridge, possibly threatening this community of tile-roofed homes at the foot of the Cleveland National Forest.

People were both fearful and curious, phoning friends and relatives to make arrangements to leave, and discussing what they should pack. Some were riding their bikes, walking their dogs, snapping photos. Kids were playing on swingsets. A nervous anticipation hung in the air.

Marcy Cohen, 42, brought her three children from the nearby Painted Trails community to see the spectacle. Before they left, she had packed up birth certificates, Social Security cards, loan documents and other paperwork. The gusty wind was pushing the flames steadily toward her home.

"I'm worried because of the fact that it's so windy," Cohen said.

Also worried was her 8-year-old son Michael, standing with his two sisters, Madison, 10, and Caitlyn, 6. "This is actually really scary for me," he said. "It's nerve-racking. It could come right at you and burn your house down. You don't know what to do."

Also threatened by the Santiago Fire is the neighboring development of Foothill Ranch. Both secluded, semi-isolated developments nestle in the hills near Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park.

A few feet away from the Cohen family was Bert Gruber, 44, an industrial engineer who left his job in Sylmar midday when he heard that Foothill Ranch was threatened. Gruber was dressed in Hawaiian shirt, shorts and thongs, but his casual appearance belied his anxiety.

"It's still not close enough to get worried yet," he said. But then he added: "It's deceptive. It's blowing in this direction."

-- Duke Helfand