Life Under Fire: The View From San Diego

We’ve lived in the San Diego area since 1974, and always knew about the danger of wildfires. At first, when you live here, you think that it couldn’t be so bad because there really aren’t many forests-it’s not like the rest of the country where stands of trees are common. Most of San Diego County is scrub brush, and you wouldn’t think it could sustain a big fire for long. But it does.


I have to admit, these fires worry me more than the ones in 2003 did. I first realized this when I went to the supermarket yesterday – not to stock up – but just for our normal purchases.

On a Monday afternoon, the crowd in Von’s in the Kensington neighborhood was
twice as thick as you’d expect it. Whole sections were stripped clean of staples. The bottled water was gone from the shelves, simply gone. So, yeah, I felt a chill, as did my family when I described to them what I’d seen. First thing we did after that was to call Sparkletts and ask their automated system to deliver five 5-gallon bottles to us today. Let’s see if it really comes.

Another difference from 2003 is that this time our kids were evacuated from their
neighborhood and came down to stay at our house near State College for the duration. They live in one of those new developments called Torrey Highlands, that lies between Interstate 15 and the city of Del Mar, and it’s all brush up there, plus (fortunately) a lot of agricultural preserve, so their house should make it through OK, but still…

In 2003, they weren’t evacuated: but we had set out to visit them on a Saturday morning and knew nothing about any fire till we saw it blocking the I-15. It was literally a pillar of fire on both sides of the freeway. We found a turnaround and went back south, and got to them via the I-5, but for a while there, we felt like Lot and his wife.


The fire that started this Sunday was a bit like that mainly in that we had no idea at first that it was here in our county. Yes, we saw smoke and we smelled smoke, but it was to the north and we knew that Malibu had a bad fire going so we thought, well, that’s what that is.

The smoke turned out to be the Witch Creek Fire that began not far from where I used to live in Ramona in 1974, in the Back Country (as we call it here). Now it was making its way through the edges of the City of Poway and the Rancho Bernardo neighborhood of San Diego, both densely populated.

My eight-year-old granddaughter says she remembers wearing a face-mask during the 2003 blaze, when she was four. Now I explained to her that, yes, the rest of the country envies San Diego the beautiful weather we have during the winter (and most of the year), but that this is the price we pay for it: sometimes it burns. She seemed to understand.

Last night was the worst so far. I didn’t sleep but two hours, after I heard that the Spring Valley neighborhood was being evacuated.

That is far too close to where we live, really only about six miles away. The next suburb is either La Mesa to our east or Lemon Grove to the south. Either one of those, and then it’d be us. Yes, we are in a built-up area, but we are also on a canyon. I tried not to think of a firestorm coming up the canyon, already fueled by the houses below us. The radio interviewed a woman who lived on Mt Helix in La Mesa, and she was talking about packing up important documents and heirlooms “just in case.” As I say, I didn’t sleep, and my wife didn’t either. We thought of our longtime friends who had evacuated from Carmel Valley in the North County and had assured us just yesterday morning that they were safe with friends in Spring Valley. And now Spring Valley faced the flames. I found the line from a Dylan song going through my head over and over-the line about “refugees on the unarmed road of flight.”


Tuesday (today) seems like it’ll be a little better. Keynahora, as my family says. And –just to be on the safe side-Insh’allah too.

The winds have died down for now, allowing planes and helicopters to get in the air and fight the fire. Chula Vista and Spring Valley seem like they might pull through, which means our house should too. But Rancho Santa Fe is burning, as are new parts of Lakeside. And-to my sorrow- there’s a bad fire now on Mount Palomar, where we dearly love to go camping.

Looked on the TV not long ago and there was Michael Chertoff’s skeletal face making promises to us. And yes, I know, I know, there were a lot of other folks to blame for Katrina, but sorry to say, my instinctive thought was: “Oh, terrific, the hero of New Orleans!” Well, we’ll see, I guess…

But I’m still just stunned –and saddened, too. More than anything I think of the poetry of the names of the place I call home, my terroir, not just the city but the Back Country too, which was the reason I moved here in the first place: Rancho Santa Fe, Jamul, Jamacha, Fairbanks Ranch, Pala, Pauma Valley, Santa Ysabel, Olivenhain, Santee, Wildcat Canyon, Harbison Canyon, Potrero, Dulzura, Tecate, Scripps Ranch, Rancho Pe√±asquitos, Poway, Spring Valley, Mount Helix.

They all seem so fragile right now, as if the next hot wind that comes out of the desert on an October morning might sweep them all away.



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