Thoughts regarding the recent wild fires in California by a resident who experienced them while evacuated from his home
Firestorm Again and.....
On October 25, 2003, the Cedar fire broke out northeast of San Diego. Among other locations, the fire burned into the town of Julian, California where we owned a second home. I had a care-taker that cut the weeds, cleaned the yard and generally looked after the property. He had stored most of his family’s house-hold belongings in our garage, while he and his family temporarily lived in another house closer to the area where he worked. I tried calling him to see if he and his family were all right, and to have him check on our house. However, they had been evacuated as had the town of Julian. So, I had no way of knowing what had happened to our house. I found a bulletin board on-line that provided news posts about the fire activity. I logged on and asked if anyone knew the status of Lakeview, the street where our house was located. I checked back later and read several posts describing how Lakeview had been destroyed. Though we had not used the house that much after our daughter had gone off to college, it had been part of our lives for twelve years. We talked to our local insurance agent as we prepared ourselves to receive confirmation of the loss. Several days later, Julian residents were allowed to return and we received a call from our care-taker. He had checked on the house and it was fine. We were delighted, and I drove up that weekend to see the situation in person. Despite the fact that our land contained numerous giant Sugar-Gum pines, which were extremely dry and damaged from several years of drought and from attacks by beetles, the house was fine. I drove around Lakeview which is a long and winding street. About a mile from my house, near a canyon, most of the houses were destroyed. As I looked at this devastation, and as I learned of people in Julian being without homes, I decided to sell the house. After all, by this time, we were visiting it only once or twice a year. And truth be told, I just didn’t want to go through the agony of the experience again. By the time the Cedar fire had been contained, it had become the largest fire in San Diego county history with 14 people killed, and 2232 homes, 23 commercial properties and 566 outbuildings destroyed. A total of 273, 246 acres had been burned.
Fast forward almost four years to October 21, 2007. We were in San Francisco to attend an Ahmad Jamal jazz concert that afternoon followed by a birthday dinner for one of my oldest friends and fraternity brothers. While getting dressed for the event, I received a cell phone call from my Alarm company for our home in Del Mar, California - just north of San Diego. The security company informed me that we had an alarm trip for one of the windows in our breakfast nook, and that the sheriff’s department had been dispatched. The person indicated that I should call back in half an hour to ascertain what had happened. I waited a few minutes and called my next door neighbor. Their teenage daughter answered and offered to go over to our yard to see what was going on. I insisted that she not do that, fearing that a burglary might be in process. Instead I asked her to wait until the sheriff deputy arrived and to talk with him. After the recommended thirty minutes, I called the alarm company back, but they indicated it would be at least another thirty minutes before they heard anything from the sheriff’s department. Armed with my cell phone, we left to attend the jazz concert. While on the way there, our neighbor’s daughter called back and said that her dad had gone over and checked our house and that everything was fine. She did indicate the Santa Ana winds were extremely high. About ten minutes later, the alarm company indicated that the sheriff department had told them they could not see anything from the front of the house. However, they had not gone around to the back of the house where the breakfast nook is located, because of the presence of a large dog. Now, our dogs were boarded, so I concluded the alarm company had informed them we had two dogs, and the deputy had decided not to go into the back yard. The alarm employee indicated that it was dry and very windy and that could cause the wood frame around the window to shrink, thus causing the alarm. Okay, I put the incident out of my mind, and we want on to enjoy the afternoon and evening with our San Francisco friends.
On Monday, October 22nd, I arose and checked news on my i-Phone, where I learned that a fire had broken out near Romona, California, about 30 miles northeast of our home in Del Mar. No big deal. They often have spot fires in that area around this time of year. About ten minutes later, our daughter called from LA indicating there was a large rapidly growing fire near San Diego. We turned on the news and learned that a fire was progressing west toward the ocean. We watched the news, and I checked to see if flights from San Francisco were still landing in San Diego. As we watched the breaking news from San Francisco, we became more concerned. So we called our next door neighbor, and she indicated they were evacuating to a house near the beach they had been able to rent as the evacuations around San Diego caused the hotels in the area to rapidly fill up. I got on line and found I could not find a room in a hotel in San Diego and wound up reserving a room in Irvine in Orange County, about 50 miles north of where we lived. I then called my publicist who lived closer to the fire than we did and talked with her husband. He indicated they had not received a mandatory evacuation notice and though they were concerned, they had not evacuated. We then decided to call a neighbor down the street from our house, who was active in the neighborhood association. He indicated there was no mandatory evacuation, but that many of the neighbors were leaving the area, due to the rapidly advancing fire, fed by 70 mile per hour winds. He said that he was staying in his house until he heard more. We talked again with our daughter in LA, and decided to fly into LA rather than flying back to San Diego. Fortunately, our dogs had been boarded in a kennel in Encinitas, about 5 miles north of where we lived. We spoke again with our next door neighbors, who had retrieved the husband’s father from a nearby retirement home and were proceeding to the house they had found near the beach. We took a 3:30PM flight to LA, that arrived in LA at 4:45PM, late enough for our daughter, a teacher, to pick us up. As we flew into LA, we could see another big fire burning in Malibu, north of LA. So, here it was almost, four years to the date of the Cedar fire, and it was de ja vu, but much closer to our primary residence. After our daughter picked us up, we went to a Macy’s and bought extra underwear to last us a few days in LA. As we listened to the car radio, we got reports of the fires all around Southern California. There was the fire in Malibu, the one approaching our neighborhood, and one near the border of San Diego and Mexico. But there was nothing we could do, so we went out to dinner on a warm night in Los Angeles. As we ate, I thought about the contrast of our situation with the Katrina situation. I thought about the African Americans that had been abandoned in New Orleans. Here I was, an African American, eating in a restaurant owned by Harrison Ford’s son, while our house was threatened in Del Mar. We had heard that San Diegans who had no place to go were instructed to go to Qualcom Stadium, or to the Del Mar Fairgrounds, which is a few miles from our house. I heard that up to 10,000 people were expected to populate Qualcom and that no more animals were being accepted at the Fairgrounds, though people were still being allowed to arrive. One report indicated that some animals were being evacuated to the Del Mar Polo Field, about a mile from our house. How strange this felt. Here we were in “virtual” natural disaster, and we were eating dinner in an upscale restaurant in trendy Culver City. I couldn’t stop comparing our black upper-middle-class situation to that of the poor black people that had been left to their own during Katrina. That night, I was able to get on line and view the San Diego NBC TV news. We learned that no water carrying aircraft had been launched to fight the fire due to the high winds. Thus the fire was allowed to burn unabated on Monday. Due to cell phone traffic we were unable to reach any of our neighbors on Monday night. Obviously, though we were safe at my daughter’s house in LA, we were concerned about our house and our dogs. I called the kennel at which they were boarded to see how they were doing. Now we have two big spoiled dogs, - a German Shepherd and a Rottweiler. Though they fiercely protect our house and yard, they are our babies and we always feel bad about having to board them. For the past year, we had been renting the doggie suite at the kennel. This is a large room with carpeting, a TV and a sofa. Our dogs were in a more comfortable facility than the people at Qualcom, or the Del Mar Fairgrounds, let alone the people of Katrina. When I reached the kennel, I discovered they had been moved to a kennel north in Oceanside. I later learned all the dogs were moved because of the poor air quality in the original kennel.
The next morning, we concluded that our area was under a mandatory evacuation. As we watched the news, we learner the fire had reached the eastern part of Rancho Santa Fe, the exclusive town just east of us. Now, Rancho Santa Fe has large lots ranging from 2 to 10s of acres, where many movie stars and celebrities have homes. Our house sits on a hill overlooking the western edges of Rancho Santa Fe, which is heavily populated with Eucalyptus trees. Our area also has it’s share of the trees. Whenever there is a fire in Southern California, residents that live in close proximity to the trees are concerned because of the combustibility of these Australian trees. As I look out at the trees in the valley behind our house, I pray they never catch fire. We wrote down the name of the street where a reporter was broadcasting from a burned out house and signed on to google maps and learned the street was only a few miles east of our house. We stayed glued to the TV and computer. A friend of ours called from San Diego and indicated he was going out to Rancho Bernado to check on the home of several friends and was going to swing by our place. I wondered how our friend, John, could get into these areas given they were under mandatory evacuation. But John, a lawyer, could get in if anyone could. Later in the day our next door neighbor called us to say they had no news of our area. I spent the afternoon stressed out wondering whether we had a house any longer. And I wondered how the authorities had allowed this fire to burn so rapidly. There were now reports put out by some authorities that the fire might burn all the way to the ocean. We then heard reports that parts of Del Mar and Solona Beach, near the ocean, were being evacuated. And we were frustrated all the more, being in LA where the news was about the fires around LA. The computer was our primary link to the action in San Diego. I spent the day alternating between the live NBC San Diego feed on the computer, the Los Angeles TV stations, and the web page for the San Diego Union-Tribune. We called John’s wife to see if he had any news. She indicated, John was stuck in Rancho Bernado, where the police were not letting him leave. I hoped that John, a black male, had not been wrongly profiled by the police. He had told his wife that only one of the three houses in Rancho Bernado that he was checking on was still standing. I tried to call to see how the dogs were doing but could not get through. Our daughter had taken the day off to be with us through the peril, as there was nothing we could do. We finally heard there were helicopters making water drops on the fire, and we wondered aloud why the big tanker planes were not making drops of water and fire repellant. Finally, John’s wife called to say that John was in our neighborhood looking at our house and all was fine. The whole area, Rancho Del Mar, was fine with no fire around. He had indicated the desertion of the area was really eerie. And being a black male, he felt he should leave before the sheriff’s department mistook him for a looter. We called and left a message on the cell phone of our next door neighbors, giving them the news about the neighborhood. That evening, we were watching the ABC evening news, and there was John in Rancho Bernado. There was apparently some disorganization as police were escorting people back into homes where it was safe for them to retrieve medication and medical devices. John was there, giving directions to residents on how to get a police escort back to their residences. “We’re no going to have a Katrina here in San Diego,” he insisted. There were news stories on TV about all of the supplies and services for the people at Qualcom. There were blog postings about the contrast of this versus the situation of Katrina. Some bloggers sarcastically said “What did you expect, given that San Diego is full of rich white republicans?” This blog thread ended with the posting about the Del Mar area, by sarcastically stating, “If we had allowed our nannies, gardeners and house-keepers to stand outside with a garden hose, the whole situation could have been avoided.” I checked our voicemail on our home phone that night and learned that we had received a reverse 911 call indicating we should be prepared to evacuate. But we never got a call for mandatory evacuation.
The next day dawned with people questioning the slow response to fighting the fire. There were reports of bureaucratic problems that kept Marine and Navy helicopters from getting to the fire at the outset. There were reports that as many as 900,000 people had been evacuated in and around San Diego. It made you wonder if the authorities were exercising an over abundance of caution to make up for their lackluster initial response. Later in the morning, our next door neighbors called saying they were back in their house and other neighbors were returning. But then we found we couldn’t take the train from LA to San Diego, because there were fires now in Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego, that were preventing the trains from going any further south than San Juan Capistrano. Reports started to come out about some of the fires around LA and Orange County being set by arsonists. A trend that seems to be growing. The original fires were started by downed power lines, but apparently some crazy copycats set some of the fires in California. I spent the rest of the day wondering if we would be able to get back to our house on Thursday. Late Wednesday night, I called Amtrak and they said trains were still not running to San Diego and the agent had no idea of when the situation would change. I had made a reservation on the 7:20AM train for Thursday morning, but didn’t know if the train would run.
On Thursday morning, I awoke and checked the Amtrak website. It still had the same notice indicating the trains were not running. I decided to call Amtrak and found that the trains were indeed running. We made the 8:30 train. Normally, we sit on the ocean side of the train to see the beauty of the Pacific Ocean as we go through San Clemente and Camp Pendleton. This day, I decided to sit on the east side of the train so that I could see where the fires had burned in Camp Pendleton. We arrived in San Diego at 11:00AM, took a cab to the parking lot by the airport where our car was, and drove back to our house. My wife left to pick up the dogs, while I cleared some of the branches that were scattered about our yard. About 40 minutes later, my wife came back with the dogs. Our Rottweiler is more my wife’s dog, and the German Shepherd is more my dog. As my wife drove up our driveway, I saw the Rottweiler jumping up and down in the car when he saw me. When my wife opened the car door, both dogs jumped out ran to me.
So you might say, all’s well that ends well. But I’ve been thinking more about the conditions that lead to these fires. If we’re going to prevent them, we need to understand the causes. So, I’m not going to just end with my happy ending.
On Thursday, the USA Today reported that more than 55,000 people have moved to the areas affected by the southern California fires, since 2000. It’s probably time that we curtail this growth in areas where people have moved into high risk fire areas. Many of these areas are surrounded by dry brush, with poor road access. Yet we allow developers to continue to march forward with their developments. In the USA Today article, Dan Silver of the Endangered Habitats League states, “There aren’t any lessons that here we shouldn’t have learned already.” And what about those power lines, why can’t more of the electrical lines be put underground. As an engineer, I wonder why circuit breakers that sense a change in current caused by a downed power line, can’t be designed and used to cut off power to electrical lines that are down. But then, maybe we should just stay out of these habitats. There are several published scientific papers that indicate the rate of wildfires has increased and link this increase to global warming. Mother nature needs to cleanse the land with these wildfires as it has done for thousands of years. We just need to curtail the increasing encroachment of man. There are now more calls for regulating developments in the highest risk fire areas. But it is expected that such regulations are years away from being passed. So it just makes you wonder when the next firestorm will occur. Again and again and again.