Crowded hotel

Four of Katrina Vieane's seven children crowd their hotel bathroom to get ready for school. The family, whose home was damaged in the Sayre fire in Sylmar, has since moved into an apartment.More photos >>> (Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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In one bedroom, there is still a stack of hand-written flashcards on the windowsill, where one of the twins left them: Anomalous. Antipathy. Assuage. On the floor, there is a little box of nail polish -- lime green, another called "berry framboise." On the wall, a calendar maps out a teenager's month: vocab quiz. mock trial. driver test.

Walk down the hall, through the little house on Deodar Road, and it's all the same: baseball trophies, half-finished homework describing the polarity of water molecules, a gossip magazine opened to a picture of Suri Cruise. It's all familiar, a mosaic of a cluttered, harried, working-class life.

It's as if nothing ever happened. Except no one lives here anymore.

Earlier this month, fire erupted in the hills above Sylmar. It blew through Oakridge Mobile Home Park, burning with such ferocity that rain gutters turned into pools of molten metal and car tires were melted down to tangled nests of steel radials.

The fire rode on the wind through Oakridge's tidy, winding streets, leveling 500 of 600 homes. It destroyed every house behind this one, to the north, and leveled a nearby grove of eucalyptus trees. It marched into Katrina Vieana's yard, blackening a section of her fence 20 feet from the back door. And that's where it stopped.

This is what it looks like at the fire's edge: a life on hold, a family stuck with a house that is at once unscathed and, because Oakridge is closed to residents and could remain that way for quite awhile, uninhabitable.

Vieana, 36, a legal secretary who lived here with her boyfriend and six of her seven children, would never stoop to compare herself with those who lost everything.

One of her neighbors bought a colander the other day and used it to sift through the ashes in search of diamond rings. When authorities did a sweep with dogs trained to find human remains, one of Vieana's neighbors had to explain that when she fled, she couldn't take the urn containing her husband's ashes. Now they were buried in the rubble; she was afraid they might give the dogs a false positive.

Vieana's house is covered with a fine layer of soot, and her belongings smell like smoke -- not insignificant, but hardly the same fate, she knows.

"I know I am one of the lucky ones," Vieana said. "But in a sense, at least they know what they lost. They know where they stand. We didn't lose our home, but we can't live here. So what do we do?"

She cannot sell, she said; her family still owes $158,000 on the house, and it's not worth that -- not anymore, not in this market, not in Sylmar, which had plenty of troubles before the fire.

She just moved herself and six children into a two-bedroom apartment but is already choosing between paying her mortgage, which saps more than half of her take-home pay, and paying the rent on her new place.

"What are they going to do?" she said, throwing up her hands. "Repo the house?"

Even if Oakridge reopened, she's not sure she'd return. Who would want to be the first one back? It will take months to haul away the ashes, the charred carcasses of the houses, and who wants to see that every day? Her children don't. Her youngest, 3-year-old Lucas, was the first of her kids to see the damage.

"Mommy," he told her, "all the houses are broken."

She is left, she said, with the unthinkable.

"I wish mine would've burned down too," she said, sweeping a foot through a pile of dust and ash that has gathered in her carport. "I really do."

The night of Nov. 14, Vieana and her boyfriend, Art Burgueno, 40, a driver for a swimming pool company, made carne asada for dinner. There had been a sale at the market, $2.99 a pound.

After dinner, Burgueno flipped on the news. There was a fire, he told her, near the house. "I don't have time for that," she told him with a laugh, and she didn't. She hasn't had time for any life interruptions for a long time.