As her children played in the driveway Friday morning, Masha Kirilenko stared at what remained of her cliffside compound, fists tightly clenched in the pockets of her sweatshirt.
The fire that roared through Bel-Air early Wednesday knocked down more than half of what had once been a 4,350-square-foot, pristine-white contemporary home. The few walls left standing were smeared with soot. The living room had collapsed, leaving only a picture window framing the blackened slope.
“We left it when it was safe and beautiful,” Kirilenko said quietly. “I was really hoping it would still be safe and beautiful and we could come back.”
The family bought the gated property on Linda Flora Drive for $5.5 million in 2015, The Times previously reported, when Kirilenko’s husband, Andrei, now president of the Russian Basketball Federation, retired after 13 seasons in the NBA.
The Kirilenkos were among the 700 families that fled the area threatened by the Skirball fire. On Thursday night, as firefighters increased containment of the blaze, officials temporarily lifted mandatory evacuation orders, allowing residents to return home for the night or pick up necessities, such as medication and clothes.
But the regular rhythm of life in Bel-Air was slow to return.
Police officers taped off the entrances to the neighborhood, checking identification and allowing only residents and employees in. Fire trucks packed the parking lot of Bel Air Foods and the shopping center next door. Most of the vehicles moving through the area belonged to landscaping and cleaning crews, tasked with whisking away as much evidence of the fire as possible before homeowners returned.
“This silence — it’s not peaceful, it’s weird,” said Jesus Ramirez, 22, as he swept leaves out of the gutter on Roscomare Road. The street was devoid of traffic, and the only sounds were the roar of leaf-blowers and the occasional rattle of a passing fire truck.
On Friday, the Kirilenkos were the only family present on their block. Many of their neighbors had left town when the fire began to avoid the chaos and the bad air, they said.
The Kirilenkos left before the sun rose Wednesday, after Andrei woke his wife up, pointed out the window, and said, “You have to see this.”
Masha Kirilenko saw flames climbing over the ridge, heading their way. She grabbed the family’s passports, Social Security cards and two Russian books, and packed a bag with diapers and toys for her youngest son, not yet 3.
Her three older children took their school books and sports bags. In their haste, no one brought anything to wear.
“Later I wondered, what were we thinking?” Kirilenko said. “These books are so heavy. Why did I bring them? Why didn’t we pack any clothes?”
The damage awaiting them when they returned wasn’t a surprise, she said, because their 15-year-old son had found aerial footage of the home on fire online. The family decided to wait until Friday to return so they could assess the situation in the daylight.
When they arrived and saw that only a few houses on the street had burned, Kirilenko said, she thought to herself, “Why were we the lucky ones?”
For now, the Kirilenkos are staying in Manhattan Beach, uncertain whether to renovate, rebuild or move. They did not have fire insurance, Masha Kirilenko said, because no company would write them a policy in such a high-risk area.
“What do I do now?” she asked a firefighter, as he guided the family away from the property and workers stretched yellow tape across the driveway. “Do we have to knock it all down?”
Two streets over, the Rahnamas had just arrived home on Casiano Road and were inspecting the fire damage, which had stopped just short of their house.
Chloe, 10, and Oliver, 12, peered over their back wall and saw blackened shrubbery and trees on the cliff sloping away from their house. Across the canyon to the east, the chimneys of two burned homes pointed up at the sky like fingers.
In the side yard, only a few feet from the house, they found a blackened tree stump and a lump of melted netting from a mini-trampoline.
“It came close,” Oliver said solemnly. “Dangerously close.”
The family’s house could have burned too, the children said, but a neighbor chose to defy the evacuation order and stay behind, hosing down yards and extinguishing hot spots.
Inside their house on Friday, their mother baked a pan of brownies for the Los Angeles firefighters hosing down the still-smoldering remains of their neighbor’s house across the street.
One home on Casiano looked fine from the front, ivy climbing up a picture window. But the back of the house was gone, firefighters said. The erratic winds, they said, had driven fire into the house and then pulled it back out again.
The house next door was all but untouched, except for the destroyed master bathroom.
At the entrance to another home on the block, city building inspectors taped a red sign to a brick pillar to warn that entering would be unsafe. The inspectors looked at six houses on the block, evaluating them for structural soundness, said Jeff Napier, chief inspector of the Department of Building and Safety.
“The owners will have to evaluate whether it’s better to renovate or demolish and start over,” he said.