They’d just finished lunch at a café in Orange County—Chuck Rees, his wife, Laurie, and her mother, Ann Marie Effert. Then Rees, 51, spotted smoke rising from a hill a few blocks away. “Let’s get up there!” he cried.
Keeping the dark plumes in sight, the trio drove through winding, unfamiliar streets and eventually came upon a white two-story house with black smoke billowing from the back.
Rees pulled his car alongside a couple standing on the curb in front of the house. “Anybody in there?” he asked them.
“I knocked, but nobody answered,” the man said. “We’ve called 911.”
Rees threw his car into park. “Chuck, don’t,” Laurie said, although she knew he wouldn’t listen. He’d once dropped the receiver of a pay phone in the middle of a conversation with her to chase a purse snatcher.
He pointed to the flames coursing up the back of the house. The woman looked at him, frightened.
“Laurie, I’ve got to,” he said, and jumped out of the car.
Rees ran up the driveway along the right side of the house, hoping to find the source of the fire and put it out with a garden hose. A locked gate blocked his way into the backyard. He considered climbing over it, but a large Labrador retriever mix appeared on the other side and bared its teeth at him. That means somebody lives here, Rees thought.
He sprinted to the front door and tried the handle; it was locked. He pounded on the door; no one answered. Then he moved along the left side of the house, past what looked like a small addition. He grabbed onto a chain-link fence and pulled it back far enough for him to squeeze through. When he scaled a six-foot-high cinder blockwall just inside the fence, another large Lab mix stood waiting for him; this one was wagging its tail.
As he scanned the back of the house for a hose, Rees noticed a small steel door in the addition. He banged on it with his fist. “Is anybody in there?” he shouted. “Your house is on fire!” No one answered. He banged on the door again.
Soon he heard a woman’s faint voice from the other side of the door. “Hello?” she said.