‘We’ve got to go or we’re going to die here.” Former Sacramento deputy barely escapes Malibu blaze

While survivors of the Camp Fire in Northern California have harrowing tales of escape, Malibu-area residents who fled the Woolsey Fire Friday morning faced similar terrors, including former Sacramento Sheriff’s Deputy Wendell Phillips, who made it out with only minutes to spare.

“Well, I’m alive,” Phillips said Monday morning by phone. “I almost wasn’t.”

Phillips, 69, and his wife lived on a 10-acre spread above Malibu with four horses and a collection of about 100 cats and six dogs from Spunky’s Rescue Ranch, an animal rescue operation his wife runs.

Friday morning, after being on alert for days as Santa Ana winds dried out what little moisture there was in the area, Phillips said he saw flames on a neighboring hillside about a mile and a half to the east.

“It went from nothing there to a line of fire as far as I could see,” said Phillips, who was prominent in Sacramento as the head of the deputies union until he moved to Southern California in 2008.

The fire burned down the hillside, then up toward his property, where he had eight structures and was racing to get the cats and dogs into crates and vehicles.

“We had about 15 minutes to get out, and we were packing up animals and putting them into the truck,” Phillips said.

“I had my wife and the other two people who live there working with us,” Phillips said, adding that his wife, Mary Dee Rickards, wanted to stay to get all the animals when the fire roared toward the property.

“She said, ‘We’ve still got animals to get.’ I said, ‘We’ve got to go or we’re going to die here.”

Rickards and the two others left in their vehicles, racing away and following traffic to safety as Phillips went to open gates and let his four horses out.

“I said, ‘Get in the car and leave, I can’t leave the horses locked inside,’” Phillips recalled.

He opened the horse gates to let them escape, then jumped in his vehicle and raced down the hill toward a roadway, where no other traffic was left and his option was to turn left or right.

“Right was toward the beach,” he said. “If I’d turned right I’d probably be dead.”

Phillips turned left, figuring a Cal Fire water tender he saw in that direction knew best where safety was, and escaped.

Of the 30 homes in the area, 28 were destroyed, including his, Phillips said.

The Woolsey Fire has destroyed a total of 370 structures, threatens 57,000 more and is blamed for two deaths so far.

“We went up there yesterday, it looks like Nagasaki,” Phillips said. A mobile home on the property had melted, and a safe inside his home had the dial melt away. “That’s how hot it was.”

Phillips’ group managed to get out with 40 cats and six dogs, and he said he saw carcasses of cats they couldn’t rescue.

“I saw some dead animals, they weren’t burned, their fur wasn’t burned off, they were baked,” he said.

For now, he and his wife and the animals they rescued are living at a friend’s home in Redlands.

He discovered that all of his horses had survived. Three were rescued and taken to a shelter, a fourth is still wandering around the property surviving off water and feed Phillips brought up.

Phillips says he hopes to rebuild, but knows it will be a difficult process.

“If we do rebuild, we will rebuild with absolutely non-combustible material,” he said.

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