As Valley fire exploded, Steve Shurelian emerged as unlikely hero for hard-hit Anderson Springs

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On this national day of gratitude some 11 weeks past the initial night of terror and tragedy wrought by the Valley fire, a handyman, singer/songwriter and accidental hero named Steve Shurelian misses some of what he lost, nothing more so than his cat, Kit.

At the same time, Shurelian, 61, tells of feeling thankful for what — and who — he was able to save. Though the former resident of the almost entirely incinerated Anderson Springs neighborhood appreciates the praise and donations he has received for what he did there the fiery evening of Sept. 12, he asks not to be over-adulated.

He did evacuate and find hasty shelter for himself and a disabled neighbor, Jim Young, who was in stark peril. And he did use a pair of garden hoses to dampen buildings in Anderson Springs’ beloved, poolside recreation center — community structures that might otherwise have burned.

But Shurelian, a Vietnam-era Army veteran and ex-Philadelphia drug addict who found peace and purpose in Anderson Springs and the nearby, now-ruined Harbin Hot Springs resort, points out there’d have been no need for heroics had he simply heeded the warnings and left his rented home earlier on the afternoon the fire started.

“The reason Jim and I were left behind is we procrastinated,” he said. He’s also straight-up about the fact that when he sprayed water on Anderson Springs’ treasured and historic rec center, he was intent not so much on saving it as on saving himself and Young as they hunkered there.

“It’s not like I went into a burning house and saved a baby,” he said.

Still, former Anderson Springs neighbors and strangers have expressed their gratitude to Shurelian through tributes and gifts that include cash, a pickup and tools to replace he ones he lost to the fire.

Angelo Parisi, a postal carrier whose Anderson Springs home was reduced to ash by the September firestorm, figures that if it was poor decision-making by Shurelian that forced him to seek refuge at the rec center and it was purely the survival instinct that prompted him to spray water on the snack shack and bathrooms, so what?

“He’d made mistakes and found himself in a bad situation, and yet there he was, doing what he did,” Parisi said.

He called Shurelian “a really kind, thoughtful and humble guy” whose actions the night of Sept. 12 saved Jim Young and gave many horrified and heartsick Anderson Springs residents their initial glimmer of hope when they realized that their rec center had survived. The people of Anderson Springs lost two neighbors and most of their homes to the Valley fire, which killed four people , burned more than 76,000 acres and a total of 1,280 homes.

“It was the first bright light any of us saw in that disaster,” Parisi said.

“That center is the reason we all know each other,” the postman said. Prior to the fire, he said, “You get home from work and head down to the rec center.”

Thanks to Shurelian, he said, “The heart of the place is still there.”

Love for little haven

Ironically, Shurelian had never spent time at the community center alongside Anderson Creek, though his daily walks took him right past it. As a single man, a musician and someone who prizes silence, he wasn’t much drawn to the swimming, games and potlucks.

Besides, use of the rec center came with a fee and Shurelian needed to sock away his income as a handyman for the home he has been building for seven years farther up Cobb Mountain, past the wooded village of Loch Lomond.

While he worked on it, he rented half of a small house in Anderson Springs, a former hot springs resort that prior to the fire was a settlement of about 200 full-time residences and vacation cabins and homes about five miles up Highway 175 from Middletown.

An easygoing and philosophical fellow, Shurelian loved living in that little house in that little community.

“It’s so quiet,” he said. “You could hear the sound of the creek at night. It’s the best place I ever lived in my life.”

He shared his half of the Anderson Springs rental with his 16-pound cat. They were at home that disastrous Saturday in September. Shurelian thinks it was about 5 p.m. when he heard a helicopter fly over, then a firetruck with its horn honking rolled up Anderson Springs Road.

There were no evacuation calls in Anderson Springs that he could recall. As dusk approached on Sept. 12, Shurelian wasn’t alarmed by the passings of a single helicopter and firetruck; brush fires aren’t uncommon in southern Lake County, especially this past summer, with the Rocky and Jerusalem blazes having already churned through 95,000 acres east of Clear Lake.

But things started happening sometime after 6 p.m. Shurelian received a call from neighbors who said they were leaving because a fire was approaching from farther up Cobb Mountain, and they wanted him to know that Jim Young, who had a room in their place, was refusing to go with them.

Shurelian promised to look after Young. Still sensing no great urgency, Shurelian walked outside and looked at the ridge to the northwest. He saw the glow of a still-distant fire.

“I’m like, ‘It ain’t going to come over here.’”

At some point, a neighbor pedaled past on a bicycle and said he was getting out. Shurelian saw that more people were carrying possessions to their vehicles and leaving.

“I started packing,” he said. He would later realize he took too much time choosing among his family heirlooms, papers, pieces of musical equipment and other possessions.

“I was vacillating. Should I take this? Should I take that?”

As he dawdled, he still was thinking that it probably wasn’t necessary to evacuate — that, as had been the case before, firefighters would halt the threat.

“I’m a city boy,” he said in a voice still tinged by his Philly upbringing. “I never experienced a forest fire before.”

About the time he saw that flames had crested the ridge, he knew the time had come to go. It was close to sunset, about 7:30 p.m., as he carried his cat, Kit, to his pickup. He had already packed into the truck bed possessions that included his guitar and case, the Asian rugs he had received from his late mother and a few items from the refrigerator: pineapple, some juice, a few leftovers.

A chance encounter

He started up his old GMC and drove the short distance to where Jim Young lived. By then, flames advanced downhill, toward Anderson Springs.

Shurelian pulled up to Young’s place, ran in and ordered the neighbor into his pickup. “I’m like, ‘Hurry up! Hurry up!’” Young, who Shurelian believes is in his late 60s, moved as fast as he could while gripping his walker.

The sky drew darker as Shurelian steered onto Anderson Springs Road and accelerated down toward Highway 175 and Middletown. All around them, flames consumed trees and homes; propane tanks and the fuel tanks of left-behind automobiles exploded.

Shurelian and Young hadn’t gone very far when they spied the headlights of a car coming straight at them.

When the Honda Civic moved close enough, Shurelian saw the driver was a neighbor he knew as Lenny. A retired San Jose Mercury News reporter with deep roots on Cobb Mountain, 69-year-old Leonard Neft was waving Shurelian back.

Neft, too, had gotten a late start in his attempt to flee Anderson Springs. His wife would recount later that she was several times on the phone with him from Sacramento that Saturday evening.

“I’d check on him every few minutes,” Adela Neft told a news reporter the week after the start of the Valley fire. “He loaded up the car, and as it got later in the day, I kept telling him, ‘You need to go now!’”

As Neft’s car passed by Shurelian’s pickup, Shurelian made a U-turn and followed. The two neighbors stopped at a crossroads near the recreation center. Neft blurted that a tree had fallen across Anderson Springs Road, blocking it. He, Shurelian and Young spoke nervously about how to get out.

Shurelian said Neft thought he knew an alternate route of escape. He said he told Neft he was sure there was no such road.

After only minutes, they parted. Neft drove to the northeast. Shurelian went southwest, onto the narrow, unpaved road that leads to the sulfur springs at the western edge of Anderson Springs. He hoped he might find a safe spot there for him and Young to hole up.

Shurelian would be crushed days later to learn that Neft died in the fire that night. His body was found about a quarter mile from the charred remains of his Honda.

Shurelian would discover also that as Neft had tried to escape the firestorm, he had driven right past the home of 72-year-old Barbara McWilliams, a retired schoolteacher who required assistance because of her multiple sclerosis. He had no way to know she was at home that first night of the fire; she died while curled up in her fireplace for protection.

Shurelian knew there was a hot springs up the dirt road to the southwest of Anderson Springs, but he had never gone there. The fire hadn’t yet reached that point when he arrived through darkness at the bubbling, steaming springs and saw that the location offered no refuge.

He saw also that he couldn’t proceed any farther on that road, and that there wasn’t sufficient room to turn around. So he backed down. Quickly, the pickup’s right-side tires spun on the road’s soft shoulder, from which the terrain dropped off steeply toward Anderson Creek.

Shurelian opened his door to exit the pickup. Just then, Kit jumped out. Shurelian called in vain to her as she ran up the wooded hillside to the left of the road.

He wanted to go after her but found that his flashlight was dim. More pressingly, he feared that his pickup might roll off the road with Jim Young inside it.

“I was in this fear/panic mode,” Shurelian said.

Agonized by his cat’s running off, he beckoned to Young to scoot over and exit the truck from the driver’s door. Young complied.

Shurelian told him he needed to leave him briefly, walk back down to the neighborhood and find a couple of planks that he could place beneath the stuck tires. He then hoofed it down a couple of hundreds yards and found not wood but someone’s small, parked pickup. The keys were on the floorboard.

Shurelian jumped in and drove it up back up toward the sulfur springs, coming upon Young as he was descending slowly with his walker. Shurelian proceeded back to his pickup and saw that flames were then entering the sulfur springs ravine.

He’d like to have carried his important papers, his mother’s rugs, his CDs and his other hastily packed possessions into the commandeered truck but he sensed there was no time. So he moved what he could from the bed of the stuck GMC into the cab.

Then he and Young piled into the little truck and got out of there.

Where to go? Shurelian thought of the Anderson Springs recreation center and its swimming pool.

Pooling their resources

The fire bore down as he pulled up and assisted Young to the pool alongside a steel-roofed picnic and games pavilion and near the snack shack and restrooms.

Shurelian helped Young into the water, then he pulled a picnic table to the pool’s edge and flipped it over. He grabbed a couple of T-shirts from a counter at the snack bar, then joined Young in the pool, the picnic table just inches above their heads.

“It was just adrenaline then,” Shurelian said.

As the fire swept by, he and Young used wet T-shirts as masks against the smoke.

When he thought it safe, Shurelian stepped from the pool and turned on both of the rec center’s garden hoses. With the adjacent vegetation still burning, he sprayed the snack bar/storage shed and bathrooms, thinking that for them to catch fire would be dangerous to him and Young.

The two of them spent the entire night there, with Young in the commandeered pickup. “I had the windows rolled up so he had less smoke,” Shurelian said.

He continued to spray the rec center buildings until the water quit at about 6 a.m. As Sunday dawned, he took Young a jug of water and some of the food he had brought from home and told him he was going for help.

It was clear to Shurelian there was no sense in driving the pickup: A glance down Anderson Springs Road revealed it was blocked by blackened trees and limbs.

He said he found an undamaged bicycle and set off toward the grand, steel “Anderson Springs” archway down at Highway 175. Navigating over, under or around fallen trees and boughs, he took in the harrowing scene.

“It was total devastation,” he said. “It was like Hiroshima.”

Anderson Springs “wasn’t what it was,” he said. “It’s amazing, the purging power of fire.”

Down near the gateway arch, Shurelian said, he met a fire crew, told the firefighters about the night and where he had left Young, and he helped them remove one of the trees that blocked Anderson Springs Road. Firefighters made their way up the road to get Young.

Shurelian was back up and down the road a few more times before he took a long, downhill walk to Middletown.

By Monday, he had joined throngs of evacuees at the hastily established camp at the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga. There, a New York Times reporter approached him and asked about Anderson Springs.

“It’s a special area,” he replied. “It was all I really required in life. Now, it’s toast.”

Some days later, word spread among the rural and tight-knit neighborhood’s scattered homeowners, most of whom had lost their houses or cabins, that thanks to Steve Shurelian the rec center was pretty much intact. Angelo Parisi’s wife, Erica, created a GoFundMe account that told what Shurelian had done and appealed for donations to help him recover from the loss of his truck, rental home, tools and other possessions.

Donors have kicked in more than $3,000, and a San Jose man gave Shurelian a 2004 Ford pickup. Also, he has applied for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA.

All along, Shurelian has declared that he did nothing heroic, that if he had done what he should have done he’d have been safely out of Anderson Springs before the fire sent him into crisis mode.

He said he’s tried to connect with Jim Young by phone but has been unsuccessful. Young could not be reached for an interview.

Perhaps the best news Shurelian has received since the inferno is that his under-construction home up off Highway 175, past Loch Lomond, was spared. After a hiatus spent processing the sorrow and shock of the Saturday night 76 days ago, he’s back to working on the place.

“Keeping busy is the best thing for a guilty conscience,” he said, referring to his regret at having abandoned Kit, his best friend.

“I am thankful, don’t get me wrong. It takes something like this to realize what really matters in life,” he said.

“It’s just bittersweet because of the cat.”

He’s grateful, too, to have gotten out of Anderson Springs with his guitar. “Some good songs are going to come out of this,” he vowed.

A title for one came to him, but it was taken long ago by the Beatles.

“The Fool on the Hill.”

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 521-5211 or On Twitter @CJSPD.

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