Cover Story

CALIFORNIA'S WALL OF FIRE

COVER STORY: Forest fires are typically measured in scorched acreage. The wildfires that devastated heavily populated areas of Los Angeles and San Diego, in the end, will be measured in lives turned upside-down-families fleeing for their lives and choosing which belongings to save before their homes were swallowed in flames ...

Issue: "California's wall of fire," Nov. 8, 2003

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.

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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.

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