Hugs from Saint Nick for California fire evacuees

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AFP / MARK RALSTON A wind-whipped brush fire in southern California has left at least one person dead and forced tens of thousands to leave their homes, while destroying more than 150 houses and businesses

Eight-year old Enrique managed to tell Santa Claus himself what he wanted for Christmas when the jolly fat man late Monday visited a shelter for southern California wildfire evacuees.

The boy and his family, who took refuge in a horse barn, are among the more than 27,000 people told to evacuate in Ventura County as flames whipped up by strong winds raced across the region. At least one person has died in the inferno.

Some 600 people took shelter in the barn on Monday and Tuesday. Firefighters and Red Cross personnel expect that number to double by Wednesday, as flames rage out of control.

Enrique told Santa Claus — who normally works at a nearby mall — that for Christmas he wants an iPad and, apparently in jest, one million dollars.

His 10 year-old sister Vianney wants an iPhone, while his 12 year-old brother Gossian has several gifts in mind, including an electronic toy.

“We ran out with our pajamas on, and nothing else,” said children’s aunt, Silvia Petatan, 46.

Enrique and his siblings did not give their last name out of caution because their mother was deported to her native Mexico six years ago.

The children currently live with the Mexican-born Petatan, who has been in the United States for 30 years, and her musician husband.

Petatan said she learned that their home survived the fire after the family fled with little more than their night clothes.

“Even so I’m very sad about this, especially because it’s Christmas time,” she said.

Another evacuee, 23 year-old Mariana Reinoso, worried that her home might have gone up in smoke.

“Several homes near ours burned,” she said, her eyes swollen by long bouts of crying.

Arrivals often stumbled into the shelter wearing breathing masks and carrying their few belongings in suitcases or shopping carts.

Some slept on the cots set up in the room. Others rifled through tables where food, water, clothes, toys for the kids and even mobile phone chargers were available.

Another evacuee, John West, carried his two-year old son Christopher up to see the visiting Santa.

“Everybody needs a hug,” said Saint Nick, as he hugged adults too.