“In the Blink of an Eye” is the continuing story of the loss of our home in the San Diego Witch Fire 2007. To read earlier chapters in this series, click on the links below:
Prologue – Any Way the Wind Blows
Chapter One – The Valley That Time Forgot
Chapter Two – Eye of the Storm
As planned, we drove to my parents’ home in the neighboring community of Rancho Bernardo. It took us almost 2 hours; a drive that normally takes 30 minutes. At one o’clock in the morning, the traffic pouring down from the mountain communities was unbelievable and thousands of cars all crawled along at a snail’s pace. When we reached the freeway, traffic was no better, but we only had to go a short distance to the next exit to get to their home. Thinking back, I realize how lucky we were to make it to the freeway. Our valley highway is mostly a two-lane road and jammed with traffic, if a firestorm came along side it – chaos.
We reached their home at around 3:00 a.m. We left everything packed in our cars and carried Coco into their house, leaving him in his carrying case. “Are you packed?” I asked my parents. Yes, they assured me; everything was packed and ready to go. The plan was to stay in their community unless we were told to evacuate by the authorities.
Everyone was emotionally exhausted. Since I was operating on adrenaline, I offered to stay up listening to the radio while everyone else tried to get some sleep. There was nothing on any of the local TV channels, so the radio seemed the most logical choice to listen for emergency news. Charlie took Coco into my parents’ guest room and I settled on the sofa in their living room.
My parents’ condo is located on a hill and the living room has a large picture window that overlooks their neighborhood and the distant communities beyond, but the sofa did not face looking out of it. Since I was as nervous as a cat, I would periodically turn around and look out the window. Suddenly, I saw the fire in the distant hills approaching their community. I jumped up yelling, “We have to go – now!” Charlie immediately came out of the guest room carrying Coco’s case and headed out the door. Normally a light sleeper anyway, like me, he had been unable to sleep.
I walked back to my parents’ bedroom to see what the delay was all about. My parents were wandering around in circles gathering things.
“I thought you were packed,” I stated flatly.
“We are, mostly. We just have to get a few more things.”
I grabbed my father’s arm and led him to the living room, pointing out the window to the encroaching firestorm. “Dad, we have to go now. This is a large neighborhood and there is only one way out of this cul-de-sac. If we don’t leave now, we could get stuck in traffic and it could be a disaster.” We went to their bedroom, gathered their belongings and headed out the door. As we were leaving, a police car traveled up and down the neighborhood streets, announcing with a bullhorn to evacuate. And, the phone rang. It was a reverse 911 call, telling us to evacuate.
Then, my sister, Gail, called on my cell phone. She and her daughter Samantha (and their dog) live in the same neighborhood. She’s scared and wants us to come to her house and all of us caravan to my parents’ friends’ house, which is near the coast. We agree and over the howling wind, I relay the information to all. We get in our cars, now numbering three, and head for my sister’s home.
By the time we arrive, I’m a nervous wreck. It’s after 5:00 a.m. and none of us have slept in almost 24 hours. At that point, I decide that I no longer want to be separated from Charlie and Coco. I want us all in one car. If we were going to die, I want us to all die together. I mentioned in “Eye of the Storm” that sometimes I’m a little melodramatic. But, this was how I was feeling. Fifteen (maybe it was more) people died in the 2003 wildfires in our area and some died in cars, not able to get out of their neighborhoods before the fires descended. I didn’t want to be separated from the people I love. So, I left everything in my car (including, inadvertently, my cell phone) and jumped into Charlie’s car.
We arrive at the friend’s house near the coast about an hour later – me, Charlie, Coco, my parents, my sister, my niece and their dog. The husband opened the door, bleary-eyed from sleep, shell-shocked at our entourage, but very gracious. His wife is out-of-town on a business trip and he’s there with their two girls and their cat. He leads us to their living room and tells us to settle in and turns on the television. Now the news is carrying stories of five different fires burning throughout the county with 500,000 people under evacuation orders. It hits me that we could be displaced for several days and all of us, including a cat and a dog, could become a great burden to this gracious family, who really didn’t have the space to house six more people and a large dog and cat.
I whisper to Charlie that it’s really too much for our hosts and maybe we (me, Charlie and Coco), should excuse ourselves and search for a hotel. After some protestations by all of the others, we finally convince them that it’s better for all and we pick up Coco and head out.
Thirteen hotels later, we find a hotel with a vacancy. It’s only 9:30 a.m. and we drove from one hotel to the other. By the 3rd hotel, I had my routine down pat. I’d jump out of the car, walk into the lobby, ask if there were any vacancies (not waiting in line), and when the answer was “no”, head out the door, jump back in the waiting car and Charlie would drive to the next one. Why didn’t you just call on the phone, you’re wondering? Well, I left my cell in my car at my sister’s house and Charlie didn’t have one at the time.
Even though we found a hotel with a vacancy, they would not allow us to check in before 3:00 p.m. Exhausted, we decided to find a place for breakfast (fast food since we didn’t want to leave Coco in the car by himself) and then located the nearest cell phone store, went in and purchased a new phone and a wireless connection for my laptop, which, amazingly, I did remember to pack. Back in the car, I call my office to tell them I’m not coming to work. Then, we decide to check in with some of Charlie’s relatives who live in our area and make sure that everyone was okay. It was one of our nieces who gave us the bad news that our house had burned to the ground. Literally, gone; “in the blink of any eye.”
A picture of our house on fire from our driveway. This picture was taken by one of the firefighters and given to me about 6 months after the fire.
The picture at the top of this post is a close-up of the 2nd-story of our house, fully engulfed in flames. Some of the firefighters were still inside removing belongings from the first floor. Their Captain finally said “no more” because it was now too dangerous.
The series continues tomorrow with Chapter Four – “Between a Rock and a Hard Place.”
Until Next Time,