With red-hot embers raining down on homes and rows of palm trees ablaze, San Diego fire crews set out to protect houses caught in the middle of the Lilac Fire. One firefighter left behind a sweet note for a couple whose home was damaged, but saved.
“Sorry about the door and ceiling. Had to get in there to save the home,” the handwritten note on a small piece of notepad paper read. It was signed “San Diego Fire,” followed by a small “Good Luck.”
The note was left behind by Ernie Valdez, an engineer with the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department (SDFD), who worked with other firefighters to save the home of Lindsey Jarrous and her husband, Michael, as the wind-driven Lilac Fire ripped through Bonsall in San Diego’s North County last week.
The 4,100-acre fire, which sparked Thursday around 11:15 a.m. off State Route 76 and Interstate 15, eventually destroyed 157 structures and damaged 64 others.
The Jarrous’ home was damaged, but spared, thanks to the quick work of SDFD crews. When the couple returned home, they found their residence still standing and the nice note left behind by firefighters apologizing for the damage. Lindsey took to social media Monday to share the note in hopes of finding the heroes.
On Tuesday, NBC 7 spoke with the scribe, Valdez, who said he wrote the note to let the residents know what had happened.
“It was just something I did out of the split second,” he recalled. “It was a quick note. I just wanted the homeowner to know we did the damage for a reason. I just decided to write them a quick note, letting them know we’re not a bunch of Neanderthals, just destroying property. We had a purpose for what we did.”
The mission was to save the home and others like it, by any means necessary.
Valdez said the house was part of a complex of townhomes in rural Bonsall surrounded by palm trees. As firefighters drove into the complex, those palms were covered in flames as if they’d been individually set on fire, “like candles on a birthday cake.”
Embers from the trees were shooting down onto rooftops, threatening to burn down the houses, including the Jarrous' home.
“They were 50 to 60-foot Mexican palm trees on fire. They were spitting embers and palm fronds everywhere. That was, in turn, catching yards on fire, houses on fire, burning our firefighters on the neck — everything,” recounted SDFD Capt. Matthew Praizner.
When firefighters reached the Jarrous’ home, the embers were overwhelming the property. They kicked in the door.
The captain told NBC 7 that when his crew went into the home, he immediately noticed the residents’ Christmas decorations.
“There was so much love and warmth in the house,” he said. “And we said, ‘We will do whatever we possibly had to give Christmas to these people.’”
Firefighters ran to an attic space on the second floor where Praizner said the fire was deep-seated, in the insulation. Valdez said the attack was swift and aggressive, all to keep the home from being ravaged by the fire.
“The whole house would’ve burned down – absolutely, for sure,” Praizner added.
Valdez was providing water to the firefighters through their hoses. With the weight of the water on top of the drywall, the rooftop of the Jarrous home collapsed into a bedroom.
Still, firefighters were able to put out the fire.
On a final walkthrough of the property, Valdez noticed the mess left behind in the home.
“The mess we left from our boot prints, to where the hose line was dragged through, to the roof falling on their bedroom furniture,” he explained.
He remembered he had a notepad and pen on him, and quickly wrote the residents a note, leaving it on an entertainment center in the living room.
“I wrote this to let someone know why we caused the damage we did, even though their home was still standing,” he said. “Even though we are the fire department, we are still a customer service department.”
The Jarrous couple said they are certainly appreciative of the work of Valdez, Praizner and their crew.
“We are so so so very grateful for the firefighters who saved our home!” a message posted by Lindsey to Instagram read, in part. “Although we have damage (like water damage and our bedroom ceiling being on the floor) we have our home! We feel very blessed!!”
NBC 7 caught up with the couple Tuesday. They are newlyweds and this will be their first Christmas as a married couple. Thanks to the firefighters, they'll be able to spend the holidays in their home, where the Christmas tree and decorations still stand.
Michael told NBC 7 they were so moved by the letter from Valdez, he now keeps the piece of paper safely tucked away in his wallet.
"I was really touched. The fact that they made a strong effort to preserve our home; this is the place for us," he said, looking at his wife and holding back tears. "We're just grateful."
"(The note) was just really, really thoughtful. In the midst of all the chaos, they were able to even say sorry that they damaged some of our stuff, but they saved most of it," Lindsey added.
Michael said he writes notes to his wife every morning before he heads out for his very early shift at work. Lindsey leaves notes for him, too. Since notes are something the couple shares often, the note from Valdez tugged at their heartstrings.
"Notes are a big thing for us," said Lindsey. "So, that was special."
The couple said, in their home, notes are a way to say "I love you" when the other person isn't around. They keep every note and never thought they'd be adding one from the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department to their collection.
"We're blessed by their sacrifice and grateful to God for giving them courage to save our home," Lindsey added.
The couple plans to thank Valdez and the SDFD strike team that saved their home in a fitting way: by writing them a note.
As of 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, the Lilac Fire was 95 percent contained, with full containment expected by Dec. 21. Cal Fire said a total of 1,659 fire personnel had worked on the fire since Dec. 7.
The Jarrous' will be staying with family until they can complete the repairs to their home. An online fundraising page has been created to help the newlyweds cover those costs.