In October 2003, three major fires and a bunch of lesser ones merged to create the largest fire in California’s history. The fire covered 750,000 acres and lasted 12 days. More than 3,600 homes were destroyed, and 22 people lost their lives. The fires virtually ringed San Diego, and residents tell me how the sky looked like Armageddon.
Where I am living now, in San Diego’s back country, the fires raged on the other side of the hills that back our house in one direction, and came up through the river valley just short of our four or five-store “downtown” in the other. My housemate Paul loaded his cats into his car and joined the many thousands forced to evacuate, leaving their homes and possessions to the mercy of the gods.
Paul headed off on Route 8 toward the city, only to encounter a blockade. Fire was approaching from the opposite direction. He literally did a 180 and headed toward the Arizona border.
The fires fed on the chaparral and sage scrub, then jumped from tree top to tree top in a raging display of shock and awe fanned by the seasonal Santa Ana winds. Thousands of fire fighters from all over California and several states heroically prevented a terrible natural and human disaster from escalating into a tragedy of unimaginable dimensions.
We are driving through Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. Charred oaks and evergreens stand in eloquent testimony of nature’s wrath. Paul tells me that the landscape was literally black like charcoal for miles around. But he also offers this insight. That spring, he said, the flowers burst forth in an explosion of brilliant color he had never witnessed. Fire is part of the natural life cycle of much of the plant life in this part of the country. The same majestic and terrifying force that would kill similar brush and trees in other regions allows seeds to germinate here, or helps make way for the type of subtle interspecies dynamics that we have yet to fully appreciate.
Indeed, Paul points out the new leaves growing on blackened oaks. The chaparral is back, as is the scrub and the grasses. One valley of blackened trees is brilliantly offset by radiant yellow willows. In the distance, recent rains have turned normally brown hillsides emerald green. Yes, evidence of the 2003 fires are everywhere, but the overwhelming impression is one of renewal .Disaster may be spectacular, but rebuilding, even at its most discreet, is no less awe-inspiring.
After my recent tribulations, these are themes I can relate to, profoundly so.
In honor of Steven Rucker, 1965-2003, northern California fireman who lost his life battling the Cedar Fire in Julian, not far from where I now live.
Published On: January 19, 2007
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