Wildfire Survivors Begin Road to Recovery

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FEMA

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- Allyson Roach has endured 13 skin grafts and the amputation of all her fingers as she recovers from burns suffered last fall during Southern California's firestorms. Her 16-year-old sister, Ashleigh, died trying to flee the flames.

Rudy Reyes, burned over 65 percent of his body, can barely move his arms and legs and a recent operation to graft skin from his stomach to his right hand increased his use of painkillers. The 26-year-old barely escaped the blaze, forced to run to safety after his car wouldn't start.

Roach and Reyes are expected to survive but will need months, if not years, to fully recover. The blazes claimed 24 lives, including a 53-year-old man who died Jan. 13, leveled 4,800 homes and other buildings and charred more than 750,000 acres.

``The pain is always there. It's just a matter of dealing with it,'' Reyes said. ``You've got to say, 'I'm not going to stay here. I'm going to recover. I'm going to get out of bed and get out of this situation.'''

Roach, 20, was released Jan. 15 from University of California, San Diego Medical Center to another undisclosed hospital for rehab work and is expected to go home in three to four weeks, said her mother, Lori Roach, a trauma nurse.

Burned over 85 percent of her body, the near-daily lung suctioning ceased last week and she regained her voice, though she still relies on a tracheotomy to breathe. This week, she stood straight for 25 minutes with a hip brace during a new daily routine that includes nearly four hours of speech and physical therapy.

Roach will spend 23 hours a day for one year in a ``very hot, very uncomfortable'' neoprene-like suit to prevent scarring, her mother said. The suit will cover her face, arms and legs.

Allyson, an aspiring nurse, was in a coma until mid-November and bandaged from head to toe until about two weeks ago, when her face was uncovered. As she battled pneumonia and infection, the only visitors allowed were her parents, who were unharmed in the fires, and her 22-year-old brother, Jason, who suffered minor burns.

She communicated by pointing to letters on a large alphabet chart. When her parents asked what colors she wanted in her room at the family's temporary home in Escondido, a north San Diego suburb, she mouthed blue and green.

Allyson knew that her home was destroyed as soon as she came out of a coma, but didn't immediately learn about her younger sister's death. Allyson hadn't asked about Ashleigh. Her parents didn't bring it up, choosing to wait until she regained her voice.

``She was shocked,'' her mother said. ``She is very sad but she is grieving her loss appropriately. She's still participating in her care. She's not clinically depressed.''

As her mother retells the ordeal, Allyson fled the fast-moving fire around 8:30 a.m. Oct. 26 in a car driven by a friend, Navy corpsman Steven Lovett. Amid blinding smoke, the car veered off a slope in front of the 4,140-square-foot home in Valley Center, north of San Diego. Her parents drove through the smoke without seeing her.

Jason, her brother, was driving behind and picked up Allyson but didn't see Lovett, who was later rescued by a neighbor. The smoke prevented Jason from seeing a car in front of him, causing him to slam into it.

The car bounced into a burning pepper tree and Jason freed Allyson from the car, but was unable to rescue Ashleigh from the back seat. They ran several hundred feet to a fire truck.

Reyes, a weightlifting buff, has vivid memories of what happened when a fire struck his house in Lakeside, east of San Diego, at about 3 a.m. on Oct. 26.

He lived alone in a one-bedroom house on the family's 2.5-acre parcel, moving into the separate quarters two years ago. The main five-bedroom house was occupied by his mother, a brother, a stepbrother and two family friends.

Rudy's 36-year-old sister, Rosa Carrillo, was the first to leave when the fire approached, fleeing in her sports utility vehicle with her three children, ages 15, 10 and 18 months. Rudy's mother drove off in her Ford truck, expecting her sons would be right behind.

``My brother was so worried about his house, he didn't want to leave,'' said Fernando Reyes, his 23-year-old brother, who visits the hospital nearly every day. ``He told me to go and said he'd follow. He was more worried about me and my mom getting out in time than he was about himself.''

His family had already evacuated when he hopped into his car. It wouldn't start.

``I had no options because no one was left in the house, so I had to make a run for the road,'' Rudy remembers. ``I just covered my face with my hands and started running down the road and screaming.''

He recalls a neighbor driving him to rescue workers, who gave him shots that put him to sleep. He didn't wake up for about six weeks.

Rudy spends his days watching television and movies from his hospital bed. His mother, Elena Lorta, visits after her eight-hour shift as a convenience store clerk ends at 11:30 a.m., feeding him ice cubes at his bedside.

Doctors moved him out of the intensive care unit a few days before Christmas and told him he may go home later this month.

``My son is back to being my son again,'' Lorta said. ``I can recognize him again.''

Reyes is the only wildfire patient left at the San Diego hospital, which treated 23 patients during the first three days of the fires, eight of them in critical condition. None died.

Dr. Daniel Lozano, the burn center's clinical director, is surprised there weren't more injuries from the wildfires, suggesting to him that evacuation warnings were largely successful.

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