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Pardon the Interruption...

Posted Sep 11 2008 8:39pm
Despite all expectations, the sun rose. Though weak, its rays slowly soaked through the roiling gray-brown skies. There was no sound but the persistent breath of the Santa Ana wind. The cloying taste of fear and ash clung to my throat, which was made raw by dry smoke and heat......



A post-apocalyptic vision? No, a description of Tuesday morning here in Southern California.

Every now and then, I depart from the topic of autism to talk about something else. This is one of those occasions. This post is about the wildfires that plagued Southern California this week. This post is about how my family's life was temporarily jacked up by Mother Nature. I am highly cognizant of the fact that we did not lose our home. Perhaps 1800 families here did. We are very lucky to not be included in that number, and my heart goes out to those who have suffered terrible loss this week.

Monday morning I got up at and went to work as usual. The top radio news story on the way in was that Highway 15 - the major inland north/south expressway in SoCal - was closed due to smoke and embers from a wildfire. No big deal, as we occasionally run into this condition in San Diego County. A few minutes later, another story runs that a fire is burning behind California State University-San Marcos and is forcing the evacuation of a few neighborhoods at the base of the hill upon which the University is located. Hmmm. 2 fires now. I also recalled that the Santa Ana winds (The Devil Winds, in which an atmospheric high pressure zone migrates to the Mojave desert, forcing hot desert air to rapidly traverse Southern California in its effort to seek the low-pressure zone sitting over the cool Pacific Ocean) were expected to prevail strongly for a few days. Uh-oh. This could be trouble.
But not for me! Wildfires, hurricanes, tsunamis, and "storms of the century" happen to other people, not me and mine. So no worries.
I settle in to work, with several co-workers commenting on the fires. One office clerk leaves, as her neighborhood is being evacuated due to the proximity of the fire and she needs to tend to her kids. Okay, so we'll be a bit short-handed. At least there is no fire in the area that I live, about a 40-minute drive away. Then someone mentions that a new fire has been reported in my area. About 30 minutes later my wife calls and confirms this, but that it is burning on the other side of the interstate a few miles away. Close, but no imminent danger ... yet. As a precautionary tactic, she began to assemble those belongings we would take with us in the event of an evacuation.
A few hours later, news reports had the fire "jumping" the highway. That is 8 lanes of highway with a very wide median - probably 50 yards of distance.
This is what can happen when the hot desert winds push a fire - burning embers are forced way out in front and ignite areas far removed from the source flames. This is how fires "jump" huge swaths of land so quickly. If the wind is travelling 70 mph like it did in gusts that day and the next, then the fire can also travel at 70 mph. Scary, if you think of it.

Anyhow, with this news I was quickly out of work and on the way home. I have an excellent and trustworthy staff, a staff that was heroic in maintaining compsure and business activities in the ensuing three days.
I barely avoided getting caught in a major snarl on the highway as it was unexpectedly closed due to the fire roaring around it and the resulting smoke. Since I had to get home in a hurry, I burned a U-turn into the median and drove back against stopped traffic to find an emergency access break in the center divide, I squeezed through there and headed back to the prior exit so I could wind through some surface roads to get home.
Keep in mind that the area I live in is very hilly - it is actually a foothill range that includes a series of ridges and valleys. Roads are limited, usually windy, and not heavily travelled.
Soon after I got home, our bright sunny day degenerated into a brown, choking haze due to the smoke from the nearby conflagration. And, obviously, since the smoke was coming our way so was the fire. We packed up my wife and kids and decided I would stay behind to watch the house and the animals. Though our area was under official "mandatory evacuation" orders issued via reverse-911 phone calls and door-to-door Sherriff visits, and the resulting exodus had begun in earnest, our situation was probably a bit more complicated than many others. Only if it became obviously dangerous would I leave. Dragging around 2 dogs and three cats to unknown shelter locations for unknown periods of time is not an appealing scenario, hence our decision. Plus, it is hard to walk away from your house not knowing if you will see it again. She and the boys safely arrived at their destination - the home of some wonderful friends (thank you!) up North of us, so now I only had to worry about the proximity of the fire.
As night fell, I began to look for a good vantage point. I found one nearby, further down the ridge that our house sits atop, and several other "stay-behinds" found the same spot. Thus began a very long night of fire-watching.
The fire line approached from the East. I live on the Western ridge of a North-South-running valley. From ridgetop to ridgetop is probably a mile or two. The valley is about 2 total miles in length. The firehad burned all day on the opposite side of the Eastern ridge. At that point, it had destroyed maybe 40 or 50 structures and a golf course.
At home, I made pots of coffee to keep the caffeine flowing. Every hour or so I would drive over to the vantage point to watch the glow from the other side of the ridge, hoping to see it diminish. Firefighters had been on it all day, so I was hoping they would beat it.
At 11:00 it was still just a steady orange glow. When I returned at 11:45 much had changed. The wind had picked up dramatically, fueling the fire. In that 45 minutes, it had crested the ridge and burned about 2/3 of the way down to the base of the valley where the road runs. It was now hard to watch as the wind was hurling embers and debris and smoke up our ridge. The crackle-pop was vaguely audible now. As the fire marched down the hill, it was the only thing you could see on an otherwise night-darkened hillside. Except ... sometimes a giant ball of fire would develop within the wall of flames. And a huge plume of black smoke would burst upwards. The adjacent flames would bend towards these intense flare-ups, drawn to them by the rush of oxygen. These were homes. Families' homes, burning to nothing in a matter of minutes. Wow. I wish I had pictures of this, but the camera was packed with our evacuation 'valuables' and was therefore, well, evacuated.
At this point, the small group of us watching this happen were of a mind to get going. None of us had any intention of getting into serious danger, and none of us had any illusions about our own ability to defend our homes from fire.
We knew that if and when we left, we would have no way of knowing what happened to our homes, had no way of knowing when we could return, and had no way of knowing whether we would be able to meet up with our families in the interim. These were powerful motivators to stay put as long as was feasible.
But ... just at the crucial moment when it seemed we would have maybe 10 or 15 minutes to clear out before the wall of flames reached us ... the wind died down. Then it picked up again - from the West. The Santa Ana had momentarily given way to a coastal breeze. This ceased the forward progress of the flames, though they still hungrily consumed avocado groves, homes, and ancient Live Oaks without compunction. Immediately thereafter, a stream of emergency vehicles gushed into our valley along the road that ran along its nadir. As I heard on the news the next day, this was a contingent of firefighters freshly arriving from Northern California, and assigned to our location as it was designated a "last line of defense". If the fire broke through our valley, authorities were concerned it would enter an estuary valley that runs directly to the coast about 10 miles away, and there would be no stopping it. I could see their vehicles wind up the narrow lanes cutting up the opposite ridge by tracking their flashing lights. They arrayed themselves above, around, and below the 2 major rivers of fire descending into the valley and valiantly defended their chosen turf. The end of the story is good - they stopped the advance and saved hundreds of homes. God Bless our firefighters.

Fast forward to the next day - Wednesday. Now it is midday, and I decide to check out the area. At the time I leave home, I feel like the only person in the world. As I walk out to my car in the driveway, every footfall results in a little cloud of rising ash. I flip the windshield wipers to clear the ash and create another little cloud that will eventually settle on the driveway. I leave home and drive past the vantage point from the night before - no one there now. The radio says the fireline is still being defended at the bottom of the valley, but I can no longer see the flames since it is day. Smoke roils by in great black and brown belches stinging my eyes and throat.
As I drive into various areas I see nothing but emergency vehicles. Fire trucks, Cal. Dept. of Forestry trucks, Ambulances screaming by with sirens blaring. Overhead, a chopper repeatedly goes back to the worst of the fire after refilling its water tank from a nearby pond. I am passed by two Army Hummers, complete with visored soldiers perched atop the roof with M-16's - guarding against the inevitable looters. There is no other movement or activity, just these vehicles with their missions. Truly bizarre, as this is my town, my little agricultural haven amidst the hubbub of Southern California. Very few stayed behind, and those who did were home indoors avoiding the choking atmosphere.

The story, for me and my family, has a happy ending. My wife and kids were able to return home Wednesday night, just two nights after flames tore through our valley. We cleaned up the ash around the house as the fire burned North into an unpopulated river valley, and eventually burned itself out.

This fire burned 9000 acres. It destroyed 206 homes and 42 other buildings.4 firefighters have been injured out of 967 assigned to the fire.
And that is just my town. In all of Southern California, the combined force of the wildfires since Monday have consumed 410,000 acres and over 1,500 homes.


This last picture is just one little area of my town that used to be lush, green growth. Suffice it to say that we're glad this week is over in Southern California.
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