It began Sunday in Ramona, but we in San Diego didn’t appreciate it until Monday. The fire was being fanned by winds gusting over 50 mph, carrying burning cinders for miles, from rural farms into luxury hilltop homes and densely populated suburbs like Rancho Bernardo. The entire towns of Fallbrook and Ramona were under mandatory evacuation orders. Main north-south freeways are closed, making traffic difficult. People not ordered to leave are staying home, which mitigates the mess somewhat. These communities remain on lock down to deter looters.
The difference from the fires of 2003 were as dramatic as the smoke that blanketed the entire region. Communication was good, coordination of emergency services was excellent. Local media were doing serious live on-site reporting. Pets were being evacuated: everything from reptiles who were offered temporary homes in pet shops, to dogs and cats, to large livestock. By Monday evening, the Del Mar Race Track was full: over 1,900 stalls: filled with mostly horses, but some goats and two zebras. At the little farm three blocks down our hill, the corral where Elizabeth the camel lives with a few sheep and goats is filled with horses – more than we can count. The parking lots of the grocery stores are full of campers, RVs and bikes on trailers – all from outlying areas in danger of approaching fires. Horse trailers are entering fire zones empty and returning with horses.
The local stations were at it all day: we had reports and text crawls on five different stations – in English and Spanish. Crawls gave street names and house numbers of destroyed homes, directions to evacuation centers like Qualcom football stadium, bus routes canceled. People were dropping off donations at many community locations – everything from dog food to cots. Gang members in convertibles loaded with trick-or-treat candy for kids, mini vans with piles of blankets and pillows.
Mandatory evacuations were made in many areas for “precautionary” reasons, since one lesson of the past fire was that it’s easier for fire fighters and emergency personnel to work without having crazy people running around with garden hoses. Scripps Ranch was evacuated, but experienced little damage. Poway and Rancho Bernardo were not so lucky. Some areas are designated as “voluntary” evacuation zones – places where there’s no imminent danger, but where you might want to get out if you’ve got sick, elderly or young people who can’t move quickly and breath easily.
By Tuesday morning, there was fire in Otay Mesa and Spring Valley – within 3 miles of our home. We’re on the north east of the fire that’s creating a smoke cloud leading south and west. The picture of the helicopter shows my roof line in the foreground – we’re close to the fire and Otay Sweetwater reservoir where the helicopters are dipping their big buckets to drop on the nearby fire and behind the backfires. We’re all learning way too much about the lingo firefighters speak.
There is a wonderful pool of good will in the air, almost as thick as the smoke. Everybody is filled with a manic good cheer and a spirit of cooperation. Everybody knows it can’t last. Today, the news reporters aren’t clean shaven and the emergency coordinators and spokespeople are visibly exhausted. The flag at the California Department of Forestry fire station is flying at half mast.