Why This House Is Still Standing Among The Ruins Of The Woolsey Fire

Winding up Triunfo Canyon, house after house is burned down. But at the very top amongst the ruin, with a panoramic view of the Santa Monica Mountains, there's a house that's still standing.

Apart from the burned bushes in the front yard, at first glance you couldn't tell it's been through a fire.

Behind the house there's a man cleaning stalls for the horses he keeps in the back. His name is William Humphrey, but everyone calls him Butch.

On Friday he was caught in a bind: He knew he should leave, but he also knew he couldn't get his six horses and three donkeys out in time.

So he stayed behind to protect them.

"I don't know, you don't think. If I thought, I would've left. And if I could've I would've left but you know I'm not gonna. The animals need me. That's my responsibility," he said. "I was not gonna leave them. I know everyone's going to say I'm an idiot."

What came next was a 24-hour saga of fighting fires, saving horses, and dragging his saddle and other horse tack out of burning buildings as flames licked at his home and toxic smoke filled the air.

THURSDAY EVENING

Photo courtesy of Butch Humphrey

Butch got home early Thursday evening. He could see the fire, but it was on one of the farthest peaks, and he said it was so far northeast, it looked like it would bypass his house.

"You know it's weird, when they said it was in Chatsworth, pffft," he scoffed, referring to a town more than ten miles away. "I thought boy it's just racing down the canyon...there was so many things it'd have to do."

It still had to cross the 101 Freeway, and burn through thousands of acres in the Santa Monica Mountains to get to his home.

But he hadn't accounted for the severe Santa Ana winds, and the fact that fire fighting planes can't fly at night.

And just a few hours later, the fire was three miles away.

"At 11 p.m., I hear that Oak Park is burning like crazy," he said. "So my girlfriend...she took the one trailer and got out of here about 11:30 that night."

She packed up four of the five dogs (his giant black dog, Jake, stayed with him).

But there wasn't enough time to pack up the horses, so he stayed up all night, watching as the flames approached.

FRIDAY MORNING

Photo courtesy of Butch Humphrey

By 8 a.m., the fire had reached a distant ridge. Thirty minutes later, the ridge closest to his house was in flames.

So he filled the eaves of his house with aluminum foil, because he heard that houses catch fire when embers get into eaves. Then he sprayed all his horses with water and moved them out of the barn.

It wasn't long before the fire came over hills from every angle and rushed toward his property. Butch said it rolled over each set of peaks, like waves in the ocean.

"It just comes up over, and then it goes down and you don't see it. And then it hits another peak over there," he said. "It just looks like a swell and it comes up...and then it hit right here."

The barn was the first to catch fire.

He dressed himself in soaking towels and ran inside to pull out his favorite saddle and a couple plastic tubs containing horse tack which later melted, but everything else — including any remaining food for his horses — ignited.

Three wooden wine barrels burnt, leaving nothing but metal rings where they once stood. The barn was so hot it melted metal inside, which trickled outside.

He raced back and forth between the house and the burning barn on his quad, until the front of it melted from the heat, and he had to go on foot.

Butch said the most surprising part of standing in the fire was how quickly it moved through the brush on the hillsides next to his house.

"It didn't burn, it just disappeared," he said. "It vaporizes."

Next to go was the wooden shed in front of his house. When flames caught the wall of the shed, he grabbed a hose and went inside.

"I couldn't see because there was so much whipping in my eyes, so I was just spraying," he said. "You can't see between the smoke and the debris...Whatever debris is in the air is just spinning."

He managed to extinguish that fire and save the shed, although there was extensive damage.

Inside, the back wall was black from the flames, while resting on the beams overhead was a melted rug, and a plastic tub that was frozen in time after getting so hot that it dripped onto the floor.

But the rest of the fire continued. The flames went up through his front yard, burning bushes and reducing wooden lawn furniture to ashes. It cracked his front windows, but finally stopped just inches from his house.

SATURDAY

Exhausted, Butch didn't know what the next step would be. On Saturday, he didn't have power or cell service, and he still hadn't left the property. But he stayed sane by keeping himself busy.

"You try to do something that brings normalcy," he said. "I cleaned. Every stall is cleaned, every bucket is emptied and refilled, and they're fed. That's normal."

And his friends brought him food, water and hay for the horses while he worked on picking up the pieces. But he said the thing that saved his soul? Hot water.

"I was able to take a shower, a hot shower. Because on Friday, you're pure black. I took a hot shower, I guess Saturday, and that was the most amazing thing to do."

The damage to Butch's property is extensive, but when he tells his story, his spirits are still high. Because his horses made it, and he said that's what matters.

"My horses were so brave. They just hunkered in. They didn't spook or run. They were amazing...You know I've had every one of them since they were babies," he said. "But they're ok, and hopefully I can get this rebuilt."

He admits the house would be gone if he hadn't stayed, but he said somebody up there must like him, because it was more than his firefighting that saved the house.

"I just got lucky, that's all. A million firefighters couldn't've stopped this. And somehow I lucked out on that house. It just wasn't it's time to go, I guess," he said. "It's just fate. It's fate."


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