... And Into the Fire

John McManamy Health Guide
  • Saturday afternoon: I finally arrive home 40 miles out of San Diego from 12 days on the road. Seasonal Santa Ana winds are blowing at gusts up to 80 MPH. This has been the driest summer in memory. Four years ago, the worst fires in California history came within a mile of where I now live from three different directions. I am too exhausted to think about all that. I hit the sack at 3 PM and don't get up till 8 the next morning.


    Sunday: Two fires have broken out, one to the south of us and the other to the northwest. The fierce winds make containment totally impossible. Several firefighters are in serious condition. Toward evening, my housemate Paul and I head up Route 8 away from the fires. From a 4,000-foot elevation, we view the smoke from both fires in the distance. Once night falls, the tanker planes that drop fire-retardant chemicals into the flames are no longer allowed to fly. We are at the mercy of the winds.

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    Monday morning: The winds seem to have picked up in intensity. The power is out. The phone is down. All I know is there is a fierce wind-driven fire raging within 10 miles of our home. I walk down to the post office-general store to find out what I can. No one is panicking. But on the way back, I spot a lady headed out in a station wagon loaded with belongings and her pet cat. Other drivers in vehicles going past seem to have the same idea.


    Monday afternoon: The phone and power come back on. The news informs us that the fire furthest from us is wreaking havoc in the populated regions north and west of San Diego. Homes and buildings are going up in flames. One person has already died. A quarter million residents are being evacuated. Residents from Escondido are being ordered out. I know people who live there. Fallbrook - I have a good friend who lives there. Temucula - I spoke to a local NAMI there.


    The news is no abstraction to me. Real people, people I know, are fleeing, forced to take shelter in a public area, wondering whether they will have homes to return to


    This is shaping up to be a repeat of 2003. Those fires scorched 750,000 acres and lasted 12 days. The fires fed on the dry brush, then jumped from tree top to tree top, propelled by the violent winds. More than 3,600 homes were destroyed, and 22 people lost their lives in those fires. The fires virtually ringed San Diego, and residents tell me how the sky looked like Armageddon. A few months ago, one lady described to me the horrors of evacuation and returning to no home and getting abused by FEMA and the insurance companies. Tears filled her eyes as she recounted the story, and she lost it several times. She has been dealing with PTSD and other psychiatric symptoms ever since.


    There is no news about the fire close to us. We are out in the sticks. All the news is justifiably focused on the main event. My other housemate, Rick, and I decide to head down toward Alpine, about 15 miles from us toward San Diego. We round the corner just short of Route 8 and off in the distance we spot a sight that knocks the breath out of me. A smoke plume is rising over the crests not far distant, looking ominously like an A-bomb cloud.


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    How far away do you think it is? I ask Rick, trying to keep my voice calm. Five miles, he replies, unable to mask his concern. But he also points out that from the shape of the cloud, the winds are blowing the fire away from us.


    Our good fortune is someone else's disaster.


    We get on Route 8, which is virtually deserted. Police have forced all semi rigs and camper vehicles to the shoulder of the road. Wind gusts have a way of flipping semi rigs like toys. The authorities are taking no chances. This is virtually the only road in and out. In an evacuation with the road jammed and with the possibility of the winds shifting the fires our way, a flipped trailer blocking traffic could result in an unspeakable holocaust.


    The town of Alpine looks like a scene from "On the Beach." Shops and restaurants front a mountain ridge. Over the top of the ridge looms an eerie purplish cloud resembling a bank of thunderheads. But this cloud is all ash and particles. A satellite image shows the winds blowing this cloud, and the cloud from the other fire, miles and miles into the Pacific. If the winds were blowing the cloud our way, Alpine would be toast in a matter of minutes.


    Some businesses are closed. Some remain open. Not knowing where our next hot meal is going to come from, we grab a bite to eat at a Mexican restaurant. The waitress delivers our orders just as the power goes out. It comes back on a few minutes later.


    We head back home, knowing we will be sleeping in our own beds tonight. We are safe, so long as another fire close by does not break out.


    Tuesday morning: The Santa Ana winds are still raging strong. A third fire has broken out, close to downtown. Five hundred thousand people have now been evacuated. One thousand residences have been incinerated. Thankfully, there are no new reports of lives lost. But thousands of firefighters and police and rescue workers, many arriving from northern California and nearby states, are placing their lives on the line for us. One fickle turn of the wind and all the safety precautions in the world won't matter.


    Even if the winds were to die out right now, the fires would take days to contain and put out. The winds are still raging. There is no sign of let-up.

Published On: October 23, 2007