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Willow Fire victim's search for 'angel' ends in reunion with sheriff's deputy

Posted at 1:06 PM, Jan 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-08 00:40:06-05

RANCHO SAN DIEGO, Calif. (KGTV) - In an emotional reunion, a Rancho San Diego homeowner whose home burned in the Willow Fire met the deputy he credits with saving his life.

"It's just a blessing to be able to meet him in person," said Doug Howarth.

Just after 10 p.m. on Dec. 2, the Willow Fire sparked, racing up a hill in minutes toward Howarth's home.

Nicolai Ramos, a sheriff's deputy for six years, had just arrived in the area and was going house to house. He banged on Howarth's front door but no one answered. He went to another home and then returned to Howarth's house.

Newly released body camera video shows Ramos' second attempt. This time, a groggy Howarth answered. Alone inside, Howarth had been asleep.

Ramos went in for a quick look at the backyard, which revealed the advancing flames. He's heard urging Howarth to evacuate.

As the deputy left, Howarth ran upstairs, grabbing his phone, wallet, and keys.

"The windows started bursting in my bedroom. Bang, bang, bang. I don’t remember heat, and I don't remember smoke ... All I saw is flame coming through the windows," said Howarth.

Howarth, dealing with knee and back issues, managed to get out of the house, before driving off. From a distance, he watched as his home of 33 years burned. Six other homes were damaged.

Days later, ABC 10News spoke with Howarth’s daughter, Gwendolyn Pavlick, about the family's painful loss and the search for the "angel" who saved her father's life. After the story aired, the sheriff's department identified the man as Corporal Nicolai Ramos, which led to a reunion in front of the home on Wednesday morning.

"Nice to meet you. Nice to meet you, again," said a masked Howarth, after a quick handshake with a masked Ramos.

"It's touching to be called someone’s angel. I know that I'm not the only in the department or in the county that would do the same thing I would do. Just in the right place at the right time," said Ramos.

"I’m grateful my time hasn’t come. He saved my life," says Howarth.

According to an initial report, the cause of the fire may have been a heat lamp from a chicken coop, but a sheriff's department spokesperson says the cause remains undetermined.

A GoFundMe campaign has been set up to help Howarth’s family with expenses.