As the Highlands Fire in Riverside County continues to burn an estimated 2,500 acres with only 15% containment, some residents of the small town of Aguanga, east of Temecula, where the fire started are just now starting to cope with the loss of their homes.  

While the winds have died down and blue skies have returned to the area, the shroud of smoke and thick ash covering the area just two days ago has given way to ash, melted metal and a debris field that extends for miles.  

“It got to a point where I couldn’t see from here to across the street it was so smoky,” resident John Rivera told KTLA’s Shelby Nelson.  

Highlands Fire
Firefighter seen working to extinguish several mobile homes ablaze during the Highlands Fire in Riverside County on Oct. 30, 2023. (Firewatch Photography)

John and his wife Patricia said they are lucky to be alive, having escaped the fast-moving Highland Fire, fueled by the Santa Ana winds, on the first day it started.  

When they first learned of the fire on Oct. 30, it was five miles from their home. John said the winds at the time were carrying the flames away from their property.  

“No sooner than I said, ‘Okay, the fire is moving away,’ the wind shifted to northwest,” he explained. “The fire turned around and headed toward our house. It traveled probably 50 yards in 45 seconds, and it was there.”  

By the time the Riveras grabbed their dog, the fire was at their garage, and it was a race to get to safety.  

“We had to drive through the dirt road and both sides were on fire,” John said.  

The Riveras are now staying with family. When they spoke to KTLA, they were attempting to return to their property, but because the road is still closed, they have yet to see the damage to their home firsthand. Though they know the home they spent almost 20 years in is now reduced to ash and rubble, they are holding out hope that a handful of precious things are still left behind.  

Highland Fire
The burnt remains of John and Patricia Rivera’s home after it burned in the Highland Fire in Riverside County in Oct. 2023. (KTLA)

“It took us a long time to get our home and we never thought we were going to lose this place,” John said.  

“My youngest daughter, her ashes,” Patricia said. “I’m praying that her ashes are okay.”  

In the midst of this tragedy, the couple said they are trying to stay optimistic. They are in contact with their insurance company, which provided a small check so that they could purchase basic necessities to hold them over. In the meantime, a GoFundMe campaign has been organized to help them start the long journey to recover from the loss.  

Officials at Cal Fire said they expect to have the remainder of the wildfire contained by Nov. 8.