As you may have heard, we’ve been having a rash of brush fires this week in San Diego County. Coming from northern California, I was unfamiliar with the experience of wildfires when I moved down here. Boy, did I get a rough introduction!
In late October 2003 I had just started my graduate program in History at SDSU and was dogsitting for a former coworker in Rancho Penasquitos. Dennis and I had been dating for several months and he was hanging out with me for the weekend. It’s a little fuzzy now, but I recall getting onto I-15 south to head downtown and seeing a huge plume of smoke out to the East. It was terrifying! They closed the freeway so we had to make our way back to the house in PQ and tried to figure out what to do.
What if the fire got to the house I was sitting? Could I put the two huge dogs in my car and head down-town?? We were glued to the news for the next day. Luckily, our friend and her husband returned the next day and the fire hadn’t burned toward their house. Dennis and I left North County and swung by my house in Clairemont so I could pick up all my photo albums and other irreplaceable items. In retrospect, this was unnecessary – the fire didn’t get anywhere near my neighborhood!
Dennis and I hunkered down at his apartment downtown. We stayed inside for well over a day and then ventured out on Monday night to see the Dolphins play on MNF at a bar. They were playing the Chargers and the game actually had to relocate to Arizona because of the fires. The air quality wasn’t great and there was ash all the way downtown. When I returned to my house in Clairemont the next day, there were piles of ash all around.
This was the Cedar Fire and it burnt over 280, 000 acres and is the largest fire in California recorded history. Thank you, Wikipedia. When something this devastating is your first experience with wildfires, it tends to skew your perspective.
The trio of big fires in 2007 occurred shortly after my mom moved to San Diego. I was nearly 8 months pregnant with Sienna so I worked extra hard to stay out of the smokey air. Between the three of us (mom, Dennis, and me) we lived in the very fire safe neighborhoods of Hillcrest and downtown, so we spent a lot of time watching the news, praying for the victims, and took some donations down to Qualcomm Stadium, but we weren’t concerned about our own homes or personal safety.
Our house is in PQ and therefore much closer to dangerous fire conditions than where we’ve lived before. On Tuesday afternoon, my friend, co-worker, and fellow PQ resident, called to tell me she’d received a notice to evacuate because of a wildfire. I don’t pay attention to much news so I didn’t even know there was a fire going on! I got things squared away at work, called Dennis, and headed to pick Sienna up from her after school program. The staff at ESS wasn’t telling the kids about the fire, so I had to be subtle when Sienna exclaimed, “Why are you here so early!” when I showed up before 3:00 p.m.
I scooted her outside and pointed up to the big cloud of dark smoke. “That’s not a cloud, honey. It’s smoke.” I told her. As we drove home I explained that a brush fire was burning a little distance away and that we needed to watch the news to see if we were supposed to leave our house. She processed the information and then insisted we pack our bags as soon as we got home. I explained that we probably could wait, talk to daddy, and decide what to do. I felt a bit panicked because my only experience with wildfires have been rather huge! But, I knew I had to be calm for Sienna’s sake. We gave each other big hugs when we got home and watched some of the footage on TV. She asked the big question, “What if our house burns down?” I pulled her on my lap and said, “That would be awful. We’d be very sad. But, if we’re all safe and together, we’d be okay. We would rebuild our house and it would become home because all four of us would be there.” She bravely nodded.
Turns out we never had to evacuate. The fire burned away from us and probably only got as close as 5 or 6 miles away. Watching Sienna process this information was hard. I realized that growing up in a region with regular fire danger is something my kids will always deal with. Sienna started drawing pictures of fires that evening. The next day she and Teo played fireman with a rideable fire truck that Teo has had forever without paying it much attention. They were processing it in their own way.
On Wednesday, with the immediate fire danger subsiding, I opted to keep with my plan to drive to our Irvine office as scheduled. The drive up was uneventful and I’d luckily gotten a few things done by mid morning when Dennis called. He said, “You better check the news. There are fires in Carlsbad and in Camp Pendleton. The 5 may backup quickly.” A couple of my coworkers looked up the traffic and fire reports with me and concluded, “You better get on the road. Take the long way around.”
So, I headed out, through Anaheim, Corona, and over to I-15 through Temecula to get home. About 15 miles north of Temecula, I could see two huge smoke clouds out to the west. I called Dennis – “That can’t be the Camp Pendleton and Carlsbad fires, can it?” It was hard to gauge the perspective from there. But, as I kept driving, the cloud of smoke grew, until it was pretty obvious I was heading right towards it. I drove faster as I contemplated the possibility that they’d close the freeway and I’d be stuck away from my house and family. The fire was right off the freeway near Fallbrook. It would come to be known as the “Highway Fire”.
As I posted on Facebook, that’s as close to a wildfire as I ever want to be. It’s scary.
So, how do we deal with living with fire danger? We’re prepared (we actually need to develop a better plan for what we’d take in an evacuation), have insurance, and pray. We’re lucky to be part of a great community that pulls together to support each other during times of disaster and tragedy. And, we’re very grateful for dedicated firemen and women who risk their lives to protect people and property.