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Volunteers clean home sites lost to wildfires

• Sixty turn out for effort.

Posted: April 27, 2008 3:01 a.m.
Updated: June 28, 2008 5:02 a.m.

Peter Altamirano, 19, from Castaic (hard hat on left), works on tearing down what's left of the fireplace of the Relles Home, which was destroyed in the wildfires of last October.

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Every few seconds, volunteers walked onto the sidewalk carrying a shovelful of debris.

Wearing white masks on their faces, they tossed the remains into a large dumpster, sending dust and ash into the air.

With empty shovels, the group returned to the remains of the burned Canyon Country home to look for more leftover pieces.

The cleanup was part of Habitat for Humanity's "Brush with Kindness" program, initiated to help local fire victims who lost their homes in the October wildfires.

Saturday morning's efforts to clear the debris were for the Relles, a family of five currently living in a rental home in Saugus.

Around 60 Habitat volunteers from UCLA and College of the Canyons, Cedarcreek Elementary School families and supporters dedicated hours to help with the rebuilding process.

Joyce Grair, community outreach director for Habitat, said this will be the first in a series of visits to offer aid to the Relles and possibly a handful of other families in the local area.

The nonprofit will also handle all of the costs associated with the clearing, as not all insurance companies provide the thousands of dollars needed to clean up the property.

The family was not present at the Saturday cleanup, but Donna Relles told The Signal that while the family has tried getting on with their lives, seeing the charred home is still too much for the mother of three sons to bear.

"Emotionally, it's harder to go to the house and just be reminded of the loss," she said, adding that it's hard for her to even drive by the area.

Before the October blaze, Relles said the home, which they lived in for 13 years, had just finished being remodeled.

A week after the remodeling was completed, the fire struck the home.

"It's just painful," she said, later adding, "It just makes it that much harder."

Just 10 days before the Buckweed fire swept the hillside homes, Donna's husband, Randy, had undergone open heart surgery.

"Because of the fire and all the stress related to that, he was rehospitalized," she said.

Donna said her husband's condition prevented him from returning to work until mid-January.

She said her husband is doing well, but it will take a year or two for his heart to make a full recovery from the surgery.

The two oldest sons, Josh, 21, and Matthew, 19, have since moved from Santa Clarita to San Diego where they are enrolled in school.

Zachary, 12, lives at home with his parents, Donna and Randy, and attends Cedarcreek Elementary School in Canyon Country.

Months later, Relles, said, "Everybody adjusted as well as they could adjust to this kind of loss."

In the meantime, Relles said her family has not yet decided whether they will rebuild their home once the area is cleared, or move to a new location.

Relles remains grateful to the local community and the outpouring of support since October.

"They've just really been amazing to us," she said. "The support has been as overwhelming as the loss."

Relles said the family has received support in numerous ways, ranging from cards and phone calls to gifts cards.

Many area churches, even those that the family does not attend, offered their assistance to the Relles.

When the family moved into their rental home, Relles said the home was already stocked with food and supplies, including much-needed pots and pans.

"We were able to move right in and pick up where we left off," she said.


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