California’s Woolsey Fire has consumed more than 96,000 acres of land in Los Angeles and Ventura counties since Thursday, and forced many families in the area to flee with what few possessions they could carry as the flames approached and evacuation orders went into place. Because the blaze burned through entire neighborhoods at such a ferocious pace, many never had a chance to save a thing.
Malibu residents Christos and Dana Richards were more than 30 miles away in Hermosa Beach when the fire broke out, giving them no way to return to their longtime Latigo Canyon home. Because the house had been sparred during past wildfires, the couple had hoped it would survive the ordeal once more. But their hopes were shattered when a neighbor sent over pictures of the fire’s aftermath, which showed their home charred and destroyed.
“I dropped to the floor when I saw the pictures, I kept thinking that we made it,” Christos’ daughter, Noelle Richards, who spent much of her childhood in the home, tells PEOPLE. “I thought the house would be the exception like it always was in the past.”
The fire has destroyed at least 435 structures as of Tuesday, and authorities believe that number will rise in the coming days. Malibu was hit particularly hard by the blaze, and at least 50 structures were burned down within the coastal city, KTLA reports.
Like so many families affected by the tandem Woolsey and Hill fires, and the devastating Camp Fire in the northern part of the state, Noelle and her family had to quickly had to accept that a lifetime’s worth of possessions had been turned into ash.
“It’s a tough one because I don’t think that you’re able to really grasp it until it happens to you, or until you know somebody that it happens to,” Noelle, 27, says. “It’s been overwhelming, the devastation, but we’re just one of the families that are going through this.”
But aside from the material things that were lost — like photographs, family heirlooms and Christos’ extensive guitar, surfboard and wine collections — the home itself symbolized the family’s perseverance and love.
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“My stepmother is broken. She’s absolutely heartbroken, just like I am,” Noelle says. “She met my dad and fell in love with him in that home. She beat breast cancer in that house. She went through chemotherapy and cancer while living in that home.”
Noelle and her father plan to return to the house on Thursday to search through what is left. It will be difficult, she says, as the family has struggled to look at the pictures of the damage.
“Now we just need to remember the house the way that she was, the beauty that she had and the memories that are still in our minds of her,” Noelle says.
“I just go room to room and think about all the memories and all the laughter,” she adds.
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The Woolsey Fire has left two dead and was only 35 percent contained as of Monday. Combined with the Camp Fire, at least 48 people have died so far. Hundreds more are still missing.
“At the end of the day what’s happened to me is absolutely devastating and I feel like my heart’s in a million pieces,” Noelle says, “but there are people out there that still don’t know where their family members are right now and that’s just a whole different level. We have to be so grateful that we have our lives and just put lots of prayers out there for the people that aren’t accounted for yet.”
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The Woolsey Fire began within hours of the mass shooting at Borderline Bar & Grill in nearby Thousand Oaks, which left 12 dead. Noelle says she knew 27-year-old Telemachus Orfanos, who survived the Las Vegas mass shooting on October 2017 and died during the shooting last week.
Between both tragedies, there has not been much time to grieve.
“I don’t even know how to put it into words,” Noelle says. “I’m just learning to be so grateful for life, and that memories are stronger than the material things. That’s what I’m trying to absorb.”
To help victims of the California wildfires, visit the Los Angeles Fire Department Foundation and the California Fire Foundation and the American Red Cross for more information.
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