Evacuees return to burglarized homes

All evacuation orders related to the 5,702-acre Willow Fire were lifted Tuesday morning, but not before some grateful evacuees from Cascadel Woods returned to find their homes ransacked and thousands of dollars in items stolen, including the piggy banks of two girls.

In what Sheriff Jay Varney called a “disgusting” incident, five homes all in the same area on Vista Drive in the subdivision, about two miles east of North Fork were burglarized during mandatory evacuations from the wildfire, which was 80% contained Tuesday evening.

The crimes follow a week where the blaze, allegedly sparked July 25 by a juvenile boy playing with a lighter, grew by nearly 4,000 acres and forced people from their homes as more than 1,900 firefighters worked to contain the flames. No structures were damaged, though hundreds were threatened by the inferno.

Amy Kern said when her family was able to return home, they felt extremely happy, and grateful for everything firefighters and law enforcement did to help ensure they’d still have somewhere to live.

But when she opened the front door Monday morning, Kern said her house had been “turned upside down.”

“My little ones were terrified to lose the home and they were thankful it was saved, but we got here and it was torn apart,” Kern said. “This is an example of somebody preying on the weak, and it’s sad.”

Kern said the burglars, who apparently entered the home through a large doggie door, ripped family photos from the walls, repeatedly stabbed a Bowie knife into the dresser in the master bedroom, and stole around $5,000 in items including a Playstation, XBox, a crossbow given to her husband by his late father, 22 bottles of expensive wine, and even the piggy banks of her daughters Madison, 5, and Samantha, 3, who had saved about $90 in total.

“The little ones feel like they don’t feel safe in their own bedrooms,” Kern said of her younger daughters. “They won’t go through the house without the lights on, they’re just scared.”

“I don’t know why this happened,” Madison Kern said as she pointed to all her clothes and other possessions tossed about her room. “I mean, they just messed it all up. It’s really mean.”

Varney said it appeared the robberies were committed by someone on foot, as sheriff’s deputies and staff from other agencies like the U.S. Forest Service or Cal Fire had 24-hour roadblocks that prevented entrance to evacuated areas.

He added it appeared neighbors in Cascadel who refused to evacuate were likely responsible for the breakins, as they’d still have access to the area.

“We regret that citizens who were sensible and cooperative with the evacuations were victimized by most likely one of their own neighbors who refused to cooperate in evacuating the Cascadel area,” Varney said. “This level of behavior is disgusting, and the sheriff’s office will exhaust all leads in determining who the suspect or suspects are.”

In a televised interview, Carol Pace, whose home was also burglarized, said she felt violated by the whole ordeal.

“People broke through my front door,” Pace said, “stealing jewelry including an antique cameo necklace and earrings my late husband bought for me, which meant a lot to me.”

“It’s heartbreaking to find out that someone took advantage of them while they were out of their house,” Sheriff’s Sgt. Tyson Pogue added.

Anyone with information is asked to call the sheriff’s office at (559) 675-7770.

By Tuesday evening, as Kern and her family awaited further information on the burglaries, the Willow Fire continued to near complete containment, with no reported growth for the day.

Charges are expected to be filed this week on the boy who allegedly started the blaze, with punishments if convicted that range from probation to time in juvenile hall.

Further details such as the boy’s name, age, and hometown will not be released by authorities given his status as a minor.