FireStorm 2003

In the late afternoon of Sat Oct 25, a signal fire was (allegedly) started by a lost hunter in the back-country of Ramona. Little did that idiot know at the time, but strong Santa Ana winds coupled with an lackadaisical initial response and poor intra-agency cooperation would result in the largest and most catastrophic fire in the history of San Diego County, and indeed, in all of California. In the end, almost 3000 homes were destroyed and 14 people were killed. As a resident in the unincorporated area known as "Crest", I found myself in the middle of all the excitement.

I had heard about the initial blaze on Sat, but went to bed confident that it would be out soon. But on Sun morning, all the local stations were running continuous special reports and the populace was worried. I was, like most San Diegans, glued to the TV on Sunday tracking the progress of the fires. The idea that a wildfire could spread from Ramona to the edges of Clairemont was heretofore unthinkable, and live TV pictures of the swirling walls of flame moving at 60mph were riveting. (Little did I know at the time, but I would be seeing that wall just a little too up-close-and-personal.)

I knew that the Cedar Creek branch was working its way down through Barona, but I was not overly concerned for myself. The winds were significantly toward the west, and even if it decided to go south, surely the I-8 freeway would act as a firebreak? When it worked its way to Willows Rd, I was still confident. But as soon as I heard that it jumped I-8 at Dunbar Lane, I knew I would be in trouble. It's practically a straight east-west shot to Alpine-Harbison-Crest, and we've had problems before.

The Evacuation

Within an hour of jumping the freeway, the fire had worked itself up the back side of Harbison Canyon and had a clear shot to the town of Crest at the top of the ridge. The sky was gray and ash was falling everywhere. With I-8 closed to all except emergency vehicles, people were using La Cresta Rd to exit Harbison Canyon from the west side, and the road was gridlocked.  I started packing up the car at 4:30pm, but there was no rush: I couldn't have left the house even if I wanted to! 

By 5pm, the CHP opened up all lanes of La Cresta for downhill evacuation, and the traffic cleared. With several stables in the area and a shortage of horse trailers, people were now walking their animals down the hill. It was difficult to justify staying myself, because I had lost power and was basically packing in the dark. (Had I not lost power, I might still be glued to the TV. Not a single CHP officer, Sheriff deputy, or firefighter came to my house to tell me what was going on or make sure I was safely out. Kinda makes a guy feel loved, ya know?)

At 5:30pm, the flames were coming down the La Cresta canyon from the east, but I had some cause for hope because it soon reached the area that had a fire about a year ago — with nothing to burn, it seemed to fizzle out. But any such hope vanished when dusk came and I saw the orange glow unexpectedly approaching from above my hill. It seems that a separate front had worked its way around the Los Coches area and was approaching from the northeast. Soon, the falling ash had turned to falling embers. By 6pm, I had 30 foot tall flames cresting over the boulders at the top of my hill. I knew it was time to leave.

I threw the dog and cat into the car and got ready to flee. From my vantage point, I saw that my nearest neighbor across the canyon was still struggling with his horses, so I drove over to see how he was coming along. We estimated that we had 15mins of safety left as I turned to see my house being approached on both sides of the hill by 100 foot high walls of flame. This is a wide-angle stitched image taken from his driveway looking up my hill — the house is somewhere in the center, and the specks are the ash and embers raining down, lit by the flash.

We made it out at 6:30pm, just in time. Although my house was not yet overrun, the fire had wrapped around the adjacent hill and was already attacking the house 500 feet further down the road.

I evacuated to my folks' place in El Cajon and waited. From their north-facing deck you could see 5 separate fronts burning in the 180° view from Scripps Ranch to Alpine. Both sad and impressive. Most troublingly, we had a clear view of the Crest hills in the distance and could see the fire engulf and advance. The fire had even traveled enough as to threaten us with evacuation when Rancho San Diego was in the line of fire (no pun intended) via Jamul. If the Cedar fire joined forces with the Otay fire, things could have gotten much worse than they already were. But thankfully that threat subsided, so there I stayed, awaiting word that I could return home to assess the damage.

The Return

The announcement was made Tues morning that the main road was finally open to residents. To discourage looters in the evacuated area, local law enforcement had set up roadblocks and resident ID checks. With anticipation and dread, I made the drive up. The news reports already showed a large portion of Crest wiped out, but I was unsure of those of us along the roadway. Unfortunately, I counted at least a dozen houses burned to the ground downhill of my home, including some immediate neighbors, so I was not feeling too optimistic.

When I got to my driveway, however, I was relieved to find mine still standing! The fire had passed over and around it, but owing to the steel-and-stucco construction (and the years of brush clearing), mine was only lightly damaged. In fact, the back garden still had rose bushes with the blooms not even wilted by heat!

After coming down the hillside from the east, it seems the fire made short work out of my garbage cans and recyclables area. A workbench burned, and nothing was left of some deck construction materials that were sitting out. Yet 5 feet away, next to the garage, was a cardboard box full of Goodwill donations that wasn't even singed!

The fire then appeared to jump the driveway heading south, burning away all my front greenery. The Junipers were charred skeletons and even the bank iceplant was torched. All 20 of the Eucalyptus trees were damaged and marked by SDG&E as unsafe and primed for removal. [They've had it in for them a long time, seeing as how they were so close to the power lines. I think they were glad to see them go.] 

Any speck of rubber or plastic was instantly melted: garden hoses, landscape edging, irrigation, patio furniture. And wood? Fuggedaboutit. The redwood trellises on the front of the house were burned, as were portions of the balcony and deck. Luckily, that was the only wood associated with the structure. Thank goodness for steel-framed homes!

The heat from the flaming Junipers in the front was enough to shatter the bath and laundry room windows. Inside the house was the distinct smell of smoke and burned plastic. But nothing a good cleaning (and several loads of clothes in the washer) wouldn't take care of.

Since I had evacuated in the truck, I had to leave my Mitsubishi 3000GT behind. [Note to self: next time, move it away from the house so the gas tank doesn't accidentally "add fuel to the fire", so to speak.] It took a pretty good hit on the driver's side, melting the mirror and popping off a few plastic accessories. I'm surprised the tires didn't burn! Then the ash and mud gave it a pretty ugly coating. But when I took it in for repairs, it wasn't as bad as thought; at least, nothing that exceeded my deductible.

I also lost an out-building and all my weed-whacker & gardening equipment. 

But that was the majority of the damage! The devastation was everywhere, but just seemed to miss most of my place. As close as the fire came, I know I was lucky. And just one look at the charred remains of neighborhood homes reminds me of that. Yes, there is such a thing as survivor guilt.

Although I had access to the home, I couldn't move back in for a while. The fire had destroyed the wood caps on the tanks that supplied water to the area, so there was no potable water. And the power was out for 4 days because of all the downed lines. But kudos to SDG&E for being johnny-on-the-spot. There are 3 power poles on the property, and the guys were busy at work before I even started moving back in. Their initial estimate was at least 2 weeks, but that changed to 5 days, then 3. They really busted their tails. (Unlike PacBell, who didn't restore my phone service until almost 2 months after!)

On another positive note, the fire made quick work of all the remaining native vegetation on the property. So take that, all you environmentalists who wanted the brushland untouched! My never-ending task of clearing chaparral is now off my ToDo list, although it has left things looking a bit Martian.

The Recovery

As with most tragedies, the silver lining in this whole disaster is that it has brought the community closer together. With Christmas approaching, people reached out to help those who had lost their homes and/or belongings. I count myself among the fortunate in terms of losses, but still have noticed the camaraderie. I'd met more of my neighbors in the 6 weeks after the fire than I had in the previous 6 years!

And just because the fires were over did not mean the concerns were gone. With the area stripped of all vegetation, the possibility of erosion became the next big topic. Jay LaSuer, Assemblyman for the district, paid for large amounts rye grass seed to be distributed to homeowners at the Crest Red Cross aide station. We would then seed the burned out areas and hope that they would germinate before the next big rains came. Anything to hold the soil in place. But even that wasn't without controversy, because the environmentalists chimed in that the rye was not an indigenous plant and could endanger the ecosystem. I guess they'd rather see the ecosystem wash away...

The first rains hit Christmas day, and the reports of mudslides were numerous. I myself was hit with a 4 foot deep flow in the back yard, which was, ironically, the only part of my property that was unaffected by the fires. After digging out the 20'x20' delta of silt, it took care of the majority of what the flames did not. Oh well.

To aid in erosion control, the County sponsored free hay blankets (for banks), straw waddles (for hillsides), sand bags, and gravel bags. Wayne Zeich, the landscaper recommended by my insurance company — Allied/Nationwide, BTW; kudos to them for quickly taking care of my tiny little claim — was already hip to the County giveaways, and we had been making regular trips to the DPW Field Station to obtain the daily allotment. However, once the story hit the news channels, the generous policy of daily rations stopped. No more than 2 days after the news story broke, they went from open 6 days a week to 1 day a week [Sat] for only 4 hours. One worker said it was because the demand was low, the other said it was because they didn't have enough manpower to staff the station. Regardless, their window of government assistance was much narrower. 

In addition to the new hours, the material would only be given away after a site inspection. This was supposedly to minimize improper installations and guarantee that people were not taking the freebies just to hoard them. I filed for an inspection immediately, but after 4 weeks I still had not heard anything. A couple angry phone calls and one letter to County Supervisor Dianne Jacob later, and I had an inspection and approval for 16 waddles and 100 gravel bags. We'll see if they do the trick...

As a final defense, the County paid to have the barren areas along the power lines hydroseeded. Its debatable whether this will be effective. They hit the lower third of my property without permission, but you won't hear me complaining. As long as they don't plaster anyone's already-landscaped areas, any kind of help is appreciated!

At the time of this writing, we are waiting for another small rainstorm to hit. It could be a good test, though not too taxing, for our erosion control measures. Meanwhile, Mother Nature is recovering nicely as some of the native vegetation is starting to return. Scrub oak branches and sumac shoots are emerging where once was a charred skeleton of a shrub. And have no fear, environmentalists: most of the non-indigenous rye seed was eaten by the birds and thus has not completely overrun the landscape yet. Thanks for your concern.

Additional photos of the fire and its aftermath (relative to my little corner of paradise) are available here.

All photos Copyright 2003, Bill Houle