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Cause of Claremont house fire still unknown

Despite the devastation caused by a Claremont house fire over the holiday weekend, a local neighborhood is coming together to pay it forward as one of its own struggles to cope with the loss of her home.

Anna Petrovich, 86, watched as her Kirkwood Avenue home went up in flames Sunday afternoon, and once again early Monday morning in an unexpected turn of events. The cause of the fire remains unknown, according to Watch Commander Lieutenant Mike Ciszek.

She moved into the property with her husband in 1957, shortly after the housing tract was first established. When she was informed that the weekend fire had left her home of over 50 years at a total loss, she felt defeated.

“It’s a horrible nightmare,” she said, holding back tears. “I’m 86 years old. I can’t take this.”

Her neighbors were there to provide her with the same strength that she has provided for them over the years, gathering around to take her into their arms and provide for her under their roofs while she copes with the loss of her own home. Despite the blur of the last 24 hours, Ms. Petrovich’s south Claremont community is proving that family isn’t just blood.

“Biology does not make a family,” said neighbor Maria Elenbaas. “Family is about the people that love you. This neighborhood loves her.”

Several neighbors have come together, taking her to the hospital, giving her clothes, food and shelter while she makes plans to rebuild her life. “She has been there for us, now it’s her turn to receive,” Ms. Elenbaas said. “Ann has been like a mother and grandmother to us.”

When Donna Christopher saw the flames coming from her neighbor’s bathroom window Sunday afternoon, she immediately began to panic.

“I just started screaming her [Ms. Petrovich’s] name and yelling for help,” she said.

An avid golfer, Ms. Petrovich says she had turned on her television to watch the Masters Golf Tournament around 11:30 a.m. She adjusted the antenna of her television set as she proceeded with spring cleaning in a nearby room.

“There was no signal, just a bunch of blurry lines...there is always signal,” she said, sensing something was not right.

She continued adjusting the antenna with no result. It was then that she smelled the smoke. She went out into her backyard to locate the source of the scent. She was shocked when she realized it was coming from her own home.

Rather than running away from the flames, Ms. Petrovich’s first reaction was to re-enter her home. As an animal lover, she wanted to save her cat, Cookie, who was still locked inside. She darted down a hallway to scoop up her frightened cat, despite the flames hanging dangerously above her head.

Her hair was singed as she made her escape. She was able to grab her cat, but by that time the hallway was almost overcome by the spreading fire.

Eight residences east of the burning home, local Scott Gorman, who also happens to be a captain of the Dalton Hot Shots fire crew, was in his backyard when he received a call from friend Norm Barrajas. Mr. Barrajas was on his way over to Mr. Gorman’s house when he spotted the house engulfed in smoke.

Mr. Gorman kicked into firefighting mode as he rushed over to his neighbor’s home, where police were on scene and the Los Angeles County Fire Department appeared moments later. Mr. Gorman began assessing the damage, banging open the door to make sure no one was inside.

“The fire was pretty involved,” he said. “The kitchen was just full of black smoke and there were a lot of things on fire.”

Mr. Gorman knew that going too far into the home would add risk to an already serious problem. He called out to his friend, and was relieved to hear Norm was safe in the backyard with the woman, who thankfully only sustained minor burns and smoke inhalation.

“It was all a rush,” Ms. Petrovich said.

Ms. Elenbaas stayed with Ms. Petrovich as she answered questions and was checked into a local hospital. She was discharged, and returned to stay with nearby friends and family as the neighborhood gathered together to help salvage items from the fire: photos, important documents and cherished memorabilia were all saved.

Unfortunately the nightmarish day was not over for Ms. Petrovich. In the early hours of the following morning, the fire reignited. Neighbors once again came to the rescue, calling 911 and staying by Ms. Petrovich’s side as her home as she watched her home burn for the second time within 24 hours.

Just days later, Ms. Petrovich is battling to grasp the loss as investigation into the cause of the incident continues. Despite the struggle, Ms. Petrovich has found incredible comfort in the love and outreach of her neighborhood family.

“I value them very much,” Ms. Petrovich expressed of all those who have come to her aid, neighbors and first responders alike. “There are no words to express my thanks.”

No matter the time it takes, her neighbors vow to continue to pay it forward until all the wrongs are set right again.

“Everyone is rallying behind her,” Ms. Elenbaas said. “Our neighborhood is our family. We take care of our own.”

—Beth Hartnett

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