Fire Blog, Part IV
Lasting Embers of the 2007 Witch Creek Fire
The Witch Creek Fire came very close to my retirement home on a little mountaintop on the outskirts of Escondido, and although it's almost fully contained there are a few embers that are still red hot in my memory:
The efforts and attitude of the volunteers at Calvan Christian School, the over flow evacuation center here in town where we were eventually sent. The whole experience of being an evacuee in an urban setting made me thankful for my neighbors and the emergency services employees of the state, of California, the City of Escondido, and the County of San Diego. The volunteers at Calvan were not part of the giant Red Cross efforts here in San Diego. They were "just" faculty, staff and students of Calvan, who stepped up to and met tactically critical challenge. By the time the evacuation order came in via the reverse 911 notification system, there was no room at the primary evacuation center serving my area--Escondido High School.
So the crowd of several thousand residents were directed north three blocks to Calvan where the volunteers welcomed everyone with cold bottled water, snacks, cots, chairs, tables, a selection of board games, television sets tuned to local news channels and a bulletin board displaying what little new information was available. As importantly to an old news guy, like me, Calvan's computer room was open and its WiFi network was up and running. I really appreciated that my evacuation center was well run, clean and as safe for young kids-- who were gallivanting out in a fenced PE field-- as it was for senior citizens with special health needs. I also thought it was nice that all common domestic pets were well taken care down to a well ventilated room for birds (which are very susceptible to respiratory conditions common to areas hit by wild fires.) For a while, north San Diego County became a veritable ark-- horse flesh peacefully grazed quietly in unused football practice fields along side goats and the occasional north American cameloid (llamas). The only thing missing from the scene were tame big cats from the animal park in Ramona and pairs of high circling buzzards, riding afternoon thermals.
"Thermals" is much to gentle a word to describe Santa Ana winds. Dry dusty Santa Anas can set your hair on end. Particularly when its a contributing force to a roaring wild fire that's coming at freight train speeds towards your neighborhood or town. Local newscasters reported peak wind velocities of 105 mph, which freaked out a lot of green thumbers (a term used in my family to describe newcomers and real estate developers).
In reality the winds were no where near that strong, since peak velocities are measured in geological gaps at the peaks of mountains and in the passes that guard the entrances to the several valleys that make up what is known as "southern California." For a couple of hours the winds on my mountaintop clocked just under 40 mph, which causes me to really think about the 70-plus foot palm tree in front of my house, which is no about 9 degrees off plumb and creaking loudly with every new gust of wind.
Back to being a latter day Joad. i was incredibly impressed by the overwhelming generosity display by other evacuees. If you ran out of dog food, the person in the parking stall next to you gave freely and volunteered to watch your dog or useless cats while you went up to a briefing in Calvan's gymnasium. Cell phone battery "dead" but need to call your family up in LA?, "Aqui (Here), senora, use mine, and I'll be happy to keep an eye on "su ninos" while you talk to mamacita."
It's been years since I've seen a visible reminder of the southern California of my youth, but for one warm unforgettable night in late October of 2007 that tranquil scene reappeared, framed by fiery light from the hills that frame Escondido.
By late Monday I had become worried about whether the fire would reach my little mountaintop. I knew that five houses had been lost not far mine and I knew that if any of the five palm trees that skylight my hill looking back towards southeast Escondido went up, my house would probably suffer fire or serious smoke damage. The palms still stand and everything is fine at my house and I realize now that I really don't have much in the way of possessions that can't be replaced.
My personal bottom line is this: when it's time to go, you better CSMO, "collect shit and Move Out."
Furthermore those faded pictures of great grandfather Sven and his rascal brother "Lars" isn't worth my life.Besides I think the mental pictures I have of Sven the Norse sea captain, howling back at the wind from a clipper's quarterdeck and his brother, Lars, losing a glass eye to a china man in a poker game is much clearer and more realistic than my faded photos.
The Joad Clan circa 2007
With 250,000 people housed in or near evacuation centers throughout San Diego County, it's hard for me not to recall images penned by John Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath ( a book I got with mother's milk as a child). In 2007 we have many Joad clan members. At the top end are those with 45-foot land yachts, anchored in parking lots of upscale shopping centers, pop-outs fully extended, interior lights on till late at night, as family, old and new friends sit in front 9of wide screen televisions shaded by wind screens watching World Series baseball, sipping glasses of two-buck Chuck red wine or chardonnay as a tritip roasts on the BBQ over in the corner.
Then we have the Joads at the shelters, listening to baseball on their car radios after having thankfully partaken of a bountiful spaghetti feed prepared by volunteers at the volunteer.
And now we come to the car camping Joads, shielded from the winds by tarps held in place by bungee cords connected to parking lot shade trees, the car's bumpers and enjoying a full blown Canned Dinty Moore Beef Stew meal followed by some milk and cookies from th Von's market across the parking lot.
And finally we have the livestock belonging to the upscale Joad cousins. It's grazing in the balmy breeze at Shelter Island in Mission bay next to its goat stable mate. Or, it's stretching its forelocks in a quick run across a high school's fenced baseball field, as sundry dogs being walked by their owners look on and wonder" Why is Bucephalus running like that when he should be napping." And the cats, curled up on th rear decks of cars, yawn, close their eyes and snuggle a little tighter as they drift into another five-hour nap.
Friday Morning and Evening Images
I woke Friday morning to a chorus of noises; the bass notes of Caterpillar D5's and much larger D6's clanking onto their low-boy trailers and then the hum of diesel 18 wheelers taking the cats and crews to an assembly area down the road at San Pasqual High School, not far from where the fire burned a huge swath through upscale homes on the edges of Lake Hodges. The high notes to the symphony were off key chainsaws used by homeowners to buck and section blown down citrus, avocados and pines uprooted by the Santa Anas and firer storm winds.
On a run to a local large store that serves every possibly need of local homeowners i was struck by the fact that the store had completely sold out of chainsaws, sharpening kits, and new chains. Novice chainsaw users are sometimes quite funny. Two neighbors complained that their new replacement chains, "just aren't cutting."
"Well D'oh," I laughed, "you put the chain on backwards and your bar is at the wrong angle."
the vacant looks I get from a new chain saw owner when I asked them for their "scrench" always makes me smile. ""A scrench is the odd too with a screwdriver running through a spark plug socket. It came with your saw."
"Is that what the thing is?"
"'Yup. And a scrench is just about all you need to keep your chain alive and running until you take it into the shop to get it serviced." So I spent about one hour showing my neighbors how to put a new chain on their saw, keep its bar properly oiled and how to let a saw do the work."
"Oh and never ever cut anything you think may have a nail in it, unless you want to end up with a new nickname like, 'Bloody Stump Lefty'."
My last two images come from Friday night. Kit Carson Park is daylight bright from portable lights all over Ruthe fire camp. A huge herd of about 75 shiny red California Division of Forestry crew trucks glisten at the edge of the lights next to duller green USDA Forest Service Hot Shot crew trucks as steam rises from shower trucks and smoke pours off the BBQ's prior to traditional end of fire meals.
Seated inside the Macaroni Grill, we stopped to tell a long table of city fire fighters from Long Beach, Ventura and Fresno "Thanks guys, you're real champs and heroes." Towards the end of my meal the restaurant erupted in spontaneous applause and hoots as the fire fighters quietly walked out to their rigs.
On the way home I slowed down at San Pasqual High School and laughed at a pair of bewildered operators scratching their heads with a "Where the hell is my dozer?" look. The parking lot was completely filled with parked cats on low boy trailers.
Well, with any luck, that's my last post for the year as a "fire blogger."
Thanks to all the fire fighters, volunteers and emergency workers who pulled us out of another fire season here on the wild side of metropolitan Escondido and the Cleveland National Forest. I came out of this fire season with enough blown ash to help next year's gardens develop great root structures, new friends at the base of my little mountain top, and the happy feeling that most of the wild things that live here survived and returned. And special thank to my former coworkers at IDG who linked to my site, to Ree at www.thepioneerwoman.com, and Dave Winer at www.Scripting.com, both of whom drove a lot of traffic my way too. We need more fruitcakes in this world, and at times I qualify. And in moments of crisis we fruitcakes stay calm and try hard not to run around like crazies. A gritty and smokey Jim Forbes from Escondido, CA, on 10/27/2007.