Residents in Calimesa return to burned mobile home park

Riverside Sheriff’s deputies guarded the entrance to the Villa Calimesa Mobile Home Park Monday and as a precaution, only allowed in four vehicles at a time. A constant line of residents in their cars waited to see their new reality for the first time.

“Hopefully when we get in there, there will be something left, even if it’s something small,” said Alexis Pennington with tears rolling down her face. “All my kids’ stuff is here, memories are here, and it’s hard but I know we’re going to be OK.”

Inside is devastation and destruction. Most of the mobile homes are now rubble. Two residents lost their lives in the Sandlewood Fire. The coroner has not yet released the identity of one of the victims. The other is 89-year-old Lois Arvickson.

“She was the sweetest lady. She would drive by ad just say ‘hi,’ roll down the window, ‘how are you? How is everything?” said Jan Bonelli who has lived in the mobile home park for 30 years.

Her son, Vance Wooten, was sleeping when the fire started. He woke up to the sound of popping and raced next door to help an elderly friend. 

“She’s on oxygen and I knew she wasn’t going to get herself out,” said Wooten. “While I was out here, Lois came out of her house and she wanted to know if she could get her car out in time. I was like, ‘I don’t know, I have to help Mary Lou right now. She’s not going to get out of there.’”

Wooten got Marylou in her car and then immediately rushed back to find Lois.

“There was a garage and then there was a little door right here and when I opened it, the smoke just hit me in the face,” said Wooten. “It was intense.”

Bonelli, with her arms wrapped around her best friend, walked around the park. “I’m devastated,” said Bonelli. “Every one of these mobiles, I knew everybody. We were so close down here.”

Fighting back tears, she sifted through the rubble that was once her home, trying to find anything salvageable.

But in the face of despair, optimism. “I’m going to sparkle again, you can bet that,” said Bonelli. “This is probably the push I’ve been needing to move on with my life.”

Investigators believe the fire started when a dump truck driver got rid of burning trash near the mobile home park. The incident was caught on video. The fire quickly engulfed the park.

OV Church on Calimesa Blvd. has partnered with the city of Calimesa to accept donations for the Sandlewood fire victims. They especially need non-perishable food or grocery store gift cards but are also accepting bottled water, blankets, clothes in good condition and jackets. The church is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.