The numbers are mind-boggling: 660,000 acres burned-roughly the size of Rhode Island. More than 2,600 homes destroyed. At least 20 lives lost. Nearly 12,000 firefighters deployed. Some $2 billion in overall damage.
But the statistics alone don't begin to tell the full story in California's worst wildfire season in a decade-and maybe the worst ever. The burned-out neighborhoods sprinkled from north of Los Angeles all the way to the Mexican border offered a more intimate glimpse into the human suffering left in the fires' wake. In one upscale San Diego neighborhood, the fire left little for residents to recognize-much less salvage-when they returned from a forced evacuation. At 10607 Birch Bluff Ave., the burned-out shell of a Porsche squatted where the garage used to be. At 10616, two sides of a white-tiled shower stall stood beside the twisted frame of an exercise bike. And at 10617, not a single recognizable feature was left in the ashes.
By mid-week-nine days after the initial outbreak-a half-dozen fires still burned unchecked across the southern part of the state. Exhausted firefighting crews retreated reluctantly from frontline positions that stretched 40 miles or more across rugged terrain. Whipped by the Santa Ana winds and fueled by bone-dry underbrush, walls of flame 10 stories high leapt across back-burns and highways, defying all attempts at containment.
President Bush wasted no time declaring a state of emergency, opening the federal spigots to help a state already reeling from an unprecedented economic crisis. Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, on Capitol Hill for a victory lap with Republican lawmakers, asked for still more help from Washington. And Gray Davis, nearing the end of his abbreviated term, defended himself against still more charges of incompetence.
Still, the politics of Washington and Sacramento seemed a million miles away for thousands of Californians who wondered minute-by-minute whether their lives were about to go up in smoke. WORLD's Lynn Vincent, who with her husband and two sons lives in the San Diego area, provides a first-person account of those uncertain hours.
Sunday, Oct. 26
This morning's news is no different than the 17 other Octobers I've spent in San Diego: A wildfire is racing through eastern San Diego county, near a little mountain cow-town called Ramona. It's an annual story we Southern California city-dwellers are used to; some wonder aloud why anyone would even live in those rural eastern tinderboxes.
My husband Danny and I sit in his grandmother's living room watching the news about a not-so-unusual (for this time of year) fire in Ramona. We own a rental home in Santee, a bedroom burg about 20 miles south of the Ramona fire, and our new house in El Cajon is only about 10 minutes away. It's a fixer-upper that we're still fixing up, so we've been bunking with Grandma Millie for six weeks now.
9 a.m. After breakfast but before church we head east to check on the new house. We drive under a thick blanket of smoke, unusual even by fire-season standards. A brilliant blue sky peeks out at the edges of the smoke. The air is yellow, the sun a peachy red disk imprisoned behind the haze.
10 a.m. I hear the first alarming news on the radio: The Ramona fire-it will later be called the "Cedar Fire"-is devouring houses. It has spilled out of the mountains and is racing through the foothills toward Scripps Ranch, an upscale San Diego suburb and the home of my close friend Cynthia Mahlberg. I dial Cynthia's cell number. Her husband, Barry, answers. They've already been evacuated, and just in time: "[The fire] is on our house," Barry says. "It burned down."
I hang up and pray. We were members of a church in Scripps Ranch for years before moving out of the area. I can think of 10 families from the church who must now be running for their lives.
I call Cynthia's cell phone again. "Tell your parents you guys can stay at our house if you need to," I tell their son, Chris. I also call Scripps Mesa Bible Church, our old church, and offer the El Cajon house for anyone who needs sanctuary.
Noon Local news media report fires popping up all over the county: in Escondido to the north, in Otay Lakes to the south near the Mexican border. Shifting Santa Ana winds whip and spread the flames. The air is thick and sooty. I learn that the fire is now about 10 minutes west of Rick and Sarajane Wood, friends who rent our home in Santee. The only thing between the fire and the Woods is another bone-dry canyon system certain to suck the fire east like a flue.
2 p.m. With the inferno raging toward the east, we decide to drive over and help the Woods pack. When we arrive, their blue Chevy Tahoe is already nearly filled with precious things-wedding photos, important documents, collections, professional awards, photo albums.
Inside, Sarajane is visibly upset. I ask her what else she wants to take if they wind up having to evacuate. She looks at me sadly: "There's so much. There's no way to choose."
"Just take some things," I urge. "Some is better than none." She searches distractedly for a crystal bowl her grandmother gave her this summer. Rick finds it for her, then goes back outside to hose down the roof. Sarajane chooses a Lladro porcelain figurine, a set of her wedding china, and some treasured serving dishes, then begins to cry quietly. A few minutes later, though there is room in our truck for the Woods to take more, Sarajane shifts her focus. "Let's go help Joan," she says. We head across the street to help a neighbor.
3 p.m. The Woods can do nothing more but wait and see if the fire will incinerate their home as it has hundreds of others in the county. The mile-wide front now forms a 270-degree arc around their house. Emergency resources are exhausted and there are no fire crews to meet it. Danny and I return to our own house; the Woods will come there, when and if necessary. I am praying.
4 p.m. Though it takes 10 minutes to drive from our new house to the nearest flames, we reason that the monster fire could sweep across the three remaining hills more quickly than that. We decide to pack.
The things you choose: Photos, of course. The comforters that were in the boys' cribs when they were babies. A preschool-sized shoe sprayed gold and filled with purple flowers-a Mother's Day gift. My wedding dress and cake-topper. Danny's awards accumulated thus far through 17 years of naval service. The boys' Little League trophies and ball-gloves (yes, you can buy new ones, but they might not break in as well as the trusty old ones).
But you also have to be practical, so you save the CPU from the computer, vital documents like birth certificates, and receipts. In the end, it's enough to fill about 18 book-boxes. We stack it all just inside the garage door and reflect that we had more time to choose than many families who escaped with only the clothes they were wearing, and some of that burned.
5 p.m. Danny drives me back to Grandma's to be with the kids, then he returns to the El Cajon house to keep watch. I call him every half-hour for an update. Standing in our backyard, he reports fire lining the low ridges about 2 miles southwest. The red flames lick up from behind the southern hills, reach the crest, then fall down the hill fronts "like a curtain," he says.
7 p.m. I can't reach Danny. A few minutes later, he calls to say that the Woods are with him. When the fire closed to within a mile and a half on three sides, they decided it was time to leave the Santee house.
8 p.m. Danny calls to say that the fires on the southwestern hills have died down, and the fires to the rear of the Santee house are receding. For the time being, our homes appear safe. But we haven't heard from relatives in Alpine, where scattered reports say flames are swirling like tornadoes. Just to the west of Alpine, half the town of Crest has already burned to the ground.
11 p.m. As I slip into bed in Clairemont, I notice for the first time that my nose and lips feel hot and chapped. I hadn't realized how much smoke and fine dust I breathed in during the day. I have to get back out of bed and dab Vaseline under my nose and on my lips in order to stop the burning.
MOnday, Oct. 27
6 a.m. First thought: What if the wind changed and the Santee house burned after all? My second: Cynthia's house is gone. I grab a cup of coffee, then sit down in the living room facing a huge picture window. The air outside is still thick and yellow. "Snow" is falling on Grandma's rose garden, the ashes of other peoples' lives.
7 a.m. Friends in Santee tell me the fires surrounding the Woods' house have finally gone out. I call Sarajane on her cell phone to tell her the house is OK.
9 a.m. Most people are trying to stay indoors, out of the noxious smoke that has settled over the city like a shroud. But not the striking union workers at my neighborhood Albertson's supermarket: They're out in force, marching through the choking haze holding picket signs and wearing surgical masks. Life goes on, I suppose.
Noon Work goes on, as well. I'll have to write about the wildfires, so I head out to Scripps Ranch.
1 p.m. Using my press credentials, I work my way through three different police roadblocks to get to Pomerado Road, the long street that winds up into the community. Lush eucalyptus groves once filled the shallow valley that runs along the right side of the road. Now it is a skeleton forest, charred and smoking.
1:15 p.m. At the top of Birch Bluff Avenue, Cynthia's street, I have to park and walk. The road is clogged with power company vehicles, and utility workers are digging holes in the yards of burned homes, shutting off gas mains. Police patrol the street.
Birch Bluff Avenue curves to the left, so I know I won't be able to see Cynthia's house until I've traveled another block. I know exactly when it will come into view. I want to see it, and yet at the same time I don't.
Finally, I can see the spot where Cynthia's house should be. More and more of the structure comes into view. The whole front is there, even the wrought iron entry gate. Now I'm walking very quickly. I let myself in the gate and circle the house. It is entirely intact, but I can see why Cynthia's husband thought it must have burned: Fire had raged up from the canyon right into their backyard. Then, somehow, it had turned aside at the last possible minute.
The place next door was leveled, yet the Mahlbergs' house was practically untouched.
It's a tiny sliver of good news in the midst of a multibillion-dollar disaster. Walking back to my car, past the flattened heaps of homes I had often admired, I remember, earthly possessions are, as Jesus said, transient things. But sound stewardship makes fire insurance good to have while you're here.