The photo above is of the flares from the fire and the fire in the distance heading west coming over our mountains. I took this picture when I went out to our storage unit to get our suitcases. My camera had a 10x zoom lens and a fast action setting – both of these features were used to take this picture. “Eye of the Storm” is the continuing story of the loss of our home in the San Diego Witch Fire 2007. To read the earlier chapters in this series, click on the links below:
Late on a Sunday afternoon, I was having an early dinner with my girlfriend, Sita, at her home in a neighboring city. We heard on the news that a fire was brewing in the east part of our county. I decided to cut my visit short and head for home. As I drove home, I saw the fire in the distant hills and mountains. It was an unbelievable site; quite literally a blazing inferno that spanned the entire horizon.
When I drove into our driveway, I insisted that my husband, Charlie, get in the car with me so that I could drive him to the end of our valley (about 3 miles away). As typical of Sundays, he was watching NASCAR and didn’t want to leave. I stood my ground; I wanted him to see the fire, too, and grasp the magnitude of what we were facing. You couldn’t see the fire from our house, at that time, because of the mountains and the perspective.
The gigantic fire came into focus as we rounded a corner to head for home. Seeing this astounding sight in the distance, all Charlie could say was “Wow.” His “wow” was almost a silent, breathless whisper. We didn’t talk to each other all the way back home. Although early evening, it was still daylight on the verge of twilight and our valley took on an eerie stillness. The birds and animal apparently sensed the danger and were silently moving to safety.
When we arrived back home from our 3-mile excursion, it was about 7:00 p.m. I thought we should start packing to prepare to evacuate, but having lived through four earlier fires, Charlie was still not convinced. My mother called and asked if we knew about the fire. I told her yes and that we hadn’t decided yet what to do. She told me the authorities were evacuating the nearby town of Ramona; the entire town. So, we changed stations on our television, searching for news of the fire, but could find nothing. As we listened for any news about the fire, I carried all the suitcases I could find into our living room.
“What are you doing?” Charlie questioned. “Getting things ready just in case we have to pack,” I replied. “We’re not going anywhere. Quit worrying.” This was Charlie’s typical, worldly admonishment because he had lived in this valley all of his life and had been through many disasters, natural and man-made.
At 10:30 p.m., the mayor of San Diego came on the television and said that the entire town of Ramona had been evacuated as well as our valley. Well, we were still there and no one had come by to tell us to evacuate nor had we received a reverse 911 call. The mayor continued his announcement, clearly stating that they expected the fire to breach the City of San Diego by 1:00 a.m. and there was no containment.
I jumped out of my chair and started running around our house gathering things and throwing them into the waiting suitcases. “What are you doing?” Charlie asked. “I’m packing! What part of that didn’t you understand? There’s no containment! It’s heading our way and is going to breach the city through our valley! We’re leaving!”
I was yelling hysterically, flailing my arms, running willy-nilly around our house trying to decide what was needed. If I had been smarter about this, I would have used the earlier 3½ hours from 7:00 p.m. to the 10:30 p.m. TV announcement to make those decisions. Instead, all I had collected were the suitcases. I packed our cat, Coco, first, getting him safely in his carrying case.
From 10:30 p.m. until 1:00 a.m. I packed. Ever the optimist, Charlie kept saying, “Why are you packing that? We’ll be home tomorrow.” Finally, in exasperation, I threw up my hands and said, “If you aren’t going to help me, at least move the cars and back them up to the front door so that I can load them.”
At one point, Charlie noticed all the clothes and shoes I was packing for myself. “Why are you packing all that?” he asked. “I have to go to work tomorrow. Besides, we don’t know when we’ll be able to come back here. Please bring me some of your clothes to pack in this suitcase.”
A few minutes later he returned with his stash – a toiletry bag, one pair of shorts, one t-shirt, one pair of socks and one pair of underwear. “Is that all you’re packing?” I said. “Yes, we’ll be back tomorrow!” I was done arguing with him and left it alone, not insisting he pack more. After all, he was a full-grown man, 57-years-old and perfectly capable of making his own decisions. Of course, he regretted that decision the next day.
After both cars were packed, I stood in the middle of our living room taking one last look around, silently saying good-bye to our precious old home, full of the memories of many lifetimes. Somehow, I knew we would not be back.
We left at 1:00 a.m. As we drove down our driveway, a power pole blew down in our field to the west of our house, catching our field on fire. I stopped my car (Charlie was in his car in front of me), ran up to Charlie’s and banged on the window. “I’m going to tell the neighbors that the field is on fire; wait for me.” I ran to the neighbor’s (our nephew and niece), banged on the door. The wind was blowing and howling so loudly that I had to yell. I told them the field was on fire and that they should evacuate. They said the wind was blowing west, the field on fire was to the west, so they weren’t worried and weren’t planning to evacuate at that time. I ran back to Charlie’s car and gave him the update and then got into my car, behind him.
We waited at the end of our driveway to turn west onto the highway. Cars were pouring down the mountain into our valley on our rural highway from the neighboring town (Ramona, the one being evacuated), without a break in the traffic. I got out of my car, again, and ran up to Charlie’s. “I don’t think we’re going to get out,” I yelled through the gusting wind (we later learned that wind gusts topped 100 mph in our valley). “Let’s go east and turn towards the Ranch and get to the freeway that way,” Charlie shouted. The “Ranch” was a neighboring property, previously owned by Charlie’s family. There was a road beyond it that led up into the mountains and then traversed back down the other side, leading to a major freeway. I screamed “Are you nuts? There is no egress on that road. If the fire comes up that mountain, we would be trapped!” I can be a little melodramatic, but the truth of the matter is that this road is a two-way road, winding up and down the mountains with no turnouts and nowhere to go except one way or the other. On one side of the road are steep mountains and the other side of the road, cliffs. If we were trapped, we would burn alive.
Eerily, just the day before, we had made a trip to a popular, local pumpkin patch in a near-by valley. The weather was warm for October and the Santa Ana winds blowing. This pumpkin patch can only be accessed by a 2-lane rural highway and later, a 2-lane rural road. A popular place, traffic was bumper-to-bumper for at least 45 minutes. Both the 2-lane rural highway and 2-lane rural road has no “escape” route – there are no turnouts along the way and the east side of the highway has cliffs, while the west side of the highway has mountains. During our trip to this pumpkin patch, I voice out loud to Charlie my concern about what would happen to these cars full of people should a fire break out.
It took us more than a half hour to get out of our driveway. Finally, someone stopped their car, letting traffic back-up behind them, and let us out. Nine hours later, another fire followed behind that firestorm, burning our house down. We understand completely why we lost our home.
The series continues tomorrow with Chapter Three – In the Blink of an Eye.