Rees yanked the door open a couple of inches. He stuck his hand through the gap and discovered that the doorknob was tethered to something, preventing it from opening all the way. “Ma’am, your house is on fire,” he repeated. “You need to get out.”
He spotted a heavyset elderly woman with long white hair through the crack in the doorway. Barefoot and dressed in cutoff jeans and a tank top, she looked disheveled and confused, as if he had awakened her.
“There’s a fire,” Rees told her again. “I need to get you out of here.”
“I don’t believe you,” the woman responded as she untethered the door so that it opened.
“I’ll show you,” Rees said.
He grabbed her hand, led her into the backyard, and pointed to the flames coursing up the back of the house. The woman lookedat him, frightened.
Rees was afraid too. He knew she wouldn’t be able to climb a wall or squeeze through a fence the way he had. They’d need to find another way out.
He guided the woman and dog back into the addition and through a doorway connecting it to the house. The fire raged in the kitchen and dining area to their left. Smoke raced along the ceiling and churned steadily downward.
He glanced back inside the addition and saw a door he hadn’t noticed before. He opened it, and there stood Laurie and another neighbor. “Take her and the dog,” Rees told them. The pair took the woman and her pet to safety. (The other dog was rescued later.)
Rees ventured back into the living room to check for others. The smoke had descended nearly to the floor, and he could hear the pop of boards burning upstairs. The heat was almost unbearable. He moved through the downstairs rooms, coughing and yelling up the stairwell to anyone who might be there. After one last look around, Rees fled.
A fire crew arrived, and Rees quickly debriefed them. Moments later, flames engulfed the house.
Exhausted and covered in soot, Rees climbed back into his car and drove his wife and mother-in-law home to Tustin before anyone got his name.
That night, the local news reported that an anonymous man had rescued an elderly woman with dementia from her burning house. Effert proudly called media outlets to identify her son-in-law as the hero.
But he didn’t do it for fame, Rees says. “It was something that needed to be done.”¦