Last Sunday, Ray and Jeania Parayno, parishioners at St. Dorothy Church in Glendora, welcomed members of their weekly prayer group to their home. They usually meet on a weekday evening, but with no electricity and utilities for a while, Sunday afternoon made the most sense.
There was no power because, a few days earlier, the historic Singer Mansion, a 1924 Wallace-Neff designed Spanish Colonial-style home that sits high in a canyon nestled near the open hillside above Glendora --- a home the Paraynos bought in 2006 --- was badly damaged in the early morning Colby fire in Glendora.
The Jan. 16 blaze raged through the hillsides above the San Gabriel Valley where it snarled traffic, cancelled school, evacuated residents and, when the ash and dust finally settled, destroyed almost 20,000 acres, five homes and 11 other structures, and damaged at least six others, including the old mansion. Its central building is the Parayno main residence and has been a retreat location for St. Dorothy Life Teen and other Catholic parishes in the area.
In addition, the property was also home to 10 renters who were living in an adjoining two-story structure (carport below the living units), a courtyard away from the main building. Nine of those tenants lost everything when the fire engulfed that building and garage.
On Sunday, after the prayer group offered novenas, Ray took stock of the charred landscape and marveled at what wasn’t touched by the fire. Up a winding path, he pointed to pine crosses marking the Stations of the Cross; despite a few singed areas, these hand-made crosses stood tall and white against the darkened ash.
“We were woken up about 6:15 a.m. and that fire was so close,” said Ray. He immediately woke up his tenants, grabbed his computer and camera, said a quick prayer to the Virgin Mary and then, with flames licking both sides of the road, drove down the steep hill --- within 15 minutes of waking up. “We didn’t have time to waste.”
Huddled on the streets below with their neighbors, the Paraynos watched the rising plumbs of smoke and trees catching fire on their property. “We were praying the rosary over and over, asking our Holy Mother to watch the hill,” says Jeania.
When he returned to the property, Ray was certain that the main living room --- which serves as a chapel --- was destroyed, but later discovered that the fire didn’t reach the central house even though it burned leaves from the nearby giant magnolia tree.
Both Ray and Jeania were heartbroken to see their tenants’ residences as smoldering shells. One tenant had just lost his job. “They have all been here about five years and treated this place as their own,” said Ray, who wants to help them find a place to stay and recover from the tragedy.
In the face of their property loss (estimated at $500,000 minimum), the Paraynos were amazed at what didn’t get engulfed in the fire. Their master bedroom window was only singed from the outside, two trees burned to a crisp near the untouched outside kitchen building, and parts of a trellised porch revealed charred crossbeams.
“After seeing the expanse of the damage, I say, ‘Oh Lord, thank you!’ Our house still stands,” said Ray. “Truly our Holy Mother was watching over this place.”
Also grateful are the Benedictine sisters at nearby St. Lucy’s Priory and High School which was not directly affected by the fire, even though the blaze came dangerously close to the north border of the property and prompted swift evacuations.
Benedictine Sister Helen Dziuk, assistant principal at the all girls’ school, was up at her usual 5:45 a.m. school time when she heard from a security guard about a fire on the hill. “By 6 a.m. we knew this was no ordinary fire,” she said.
Even though they spread the word through a massive email to the 650 students, parents and teachers, students and faculty started arriving at the school about 7 a.m. “We were down at the gate telling them to get back, no school today,” said Sister Dziuk.
The sisters grabbed computers and laptops with information (“We didn’t want to lose any vital student data,” explains Sister Dziuk), and headed to a safe parking lot to wait. “We knew so many people were in danger and just prayed for them while we waited,” she says.
The sisters themselves were displaced for a few days. Some were sent to a Benedictine retreat center in Riverside while others checked into a local motel.
Fires in the area aren’t particularly new for residents near the hillsides in the San Gabriel Valley, but this time it was “the closest I’ve ever seen the fire come to where I lived,” says Sister Dziuk. “There was such a horrific smell here, too. I am just so grateful that we are safe and I am so grateful for those who helped put the fire out. They are truly doing God’s work.”