As Joe Lautman woke up Wednesday morning, in the distance he spotted a fire dancing in the hills near the encampment he calls home not far from West Easy Street in Simi Valley.
As the Santa Ana winds swirled, he picked up his dog Chula, stepped outside his tent and yelled, “Fire!”
The flames were only 100 yards away, Lautman said.
“I saw a six-feet-tall oak tree and the flames were higher than the tree,” he said.
Lautman was one of about 20 people experiencing homelessness who woke up to the soaring flames of what later became known as the Easy fire that has since charred at least 1,400 acres, threatening at least 6,500 homes.
Also scarred was the homeless encampent itself, a patch of land some know as “the Bowl.”
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As the morning wore on, and the fire was spreading rapidly — at one point up to the parking lot of the nearby Ronald Reagan Presidential Library — there would be more activity near the Easy Street encampment, which rested at the foot of a hill.
By 9 a.m., investigators had shown up to the area, where a few blocks away they interviewed a group of homeless people, asking them how the fire started. It was still unclear what was the source of the fire.
By noon, about 10 people gathered on bike lanes near a bridge that arched over a westward-running creek and West Easy Street, anxiously awaiting news on whether their belongings and tents had survived. Some carried duffle bags, pets and backpacks. One woman held a dog in her jacket.
“This is my worst nightmare,” said Silke Brown, who fled the fire with her homeless neighbors.
A man looked at the charred hills through a small telescope, trying to detect if his tent had survived.
One homeless woman said she was not planning to go to an evacuation center because she believed they wouldn’t accept homeless people.
Lautman joined the group after leaving a shopping park nearby with his dog Chula.
When the fire started he moved from the encampment and found a safe spot where he watched the fire grow.
He told his neighbor Bobby Green that his tent had burned.
“Your propane stove went, “Boom!,” he said.
Lautman said he found out that his bikes burned and his tent was “toasted” in the fire. He lived in the area for about six months, enjoying “a million-dollar view,” he said.
Green said he woke up hearing Lautman waking everyone up and picked up whatever he could before running from the encampment.
“You just grab whatever you can and run,” Green said.
Shortly, word came that a homeless resident known as Gypsy was still missing.
“No one has seen her since the fire started,” Lautman said. “We worry about her.”
In the afternoon, hot spots were still smoldering near the remains of the encampment with charred pieces of a bike, blanket, and a reclining chair. The high winds kept blowing across the hills.
Nearby, three investigators walked up a trail, examining the area.
Homeless residents were still waiting to hear from fire authorities if they could return to collect their possessions.
Someone heard on the news that the fire broke out at their encampment.
Lautman said it was unfair to blame the homeless people who barely escaped the fire.
“They can’t blame it on us,” he said.