Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Fires in San Diego

From: Mom
Date: Tue, Oct 23, 2007 at 6:24 AM


We're very concerned about the fires in San Diego. Your Aunt Kathy and Uncle Clark, their daughter Maggie and her family (her husband Kenton and baby Maya) have all been evacuated, along with 250,000 other people. The really hard thing for your Aunt Kathy (besides the possibility of losing her house once again) is that she had knee replacement surgery on Wed., and she just got out of the hospital on Sun. Then she had to leave her home on Mon. I don't know where they're staying, and I don't know if their house is all right this morning or not. The winds in the area are still high, and they expect them to be that way at least through Wednesday. 500 homes in the area have already burned.

Love, Mom

From: Me
Date: Fri, Oct 26, 2007 at 12:06 PM
To: Mom

Any news yet?

From: Mom
Date: Sun, Oct 28, 2007 at 2:48 PM

Aunt Kathy wrote:
All is well here now. I have a home health nurse coming twice a week to check my coumadin level and a physical therapist coming three days a week and I'm already feeling pretty good. Still hurts a lot and I'm still trying hard to straighten my leg, but it's healing pretty well and I'll get there if I keep working at it. M is my constant companion, holding onto my walker as we walk down the hall or outside, chattering away as I struggle and strain.

Love, Mom

UPDATE: This time, my Aunt and Uncle's neighborhood was spared by the fires raging through San Diego. 4 years earlier it was a different story. I cannot help but be reminded of their traumatic ordeal. Below is a letter my Aunt sent out after the 2003 Cedar fire in San Diego County which burned their home (and thousands of others) to the ground.

From: Aunt Kathy
Date: Sun, Oct 31, 2003

Hello everyone,

Wow, what a week it has been for our family. As most of you know by now, last Sunday was a day that changed our lives forever, not just because of the total loss of our home to wind-fed wildfire, but because we have also been the recipients of an incredible outpouring of love and caring from our friends and neighbors (whose homes survived the fire), and from friends across the country who have called and written to express their sadness and concern for our family. It has helped us to cope as we sift through the ashes, to know that others bear our sorrow and have hope, as we do, that it really is going to be okay. We'd like for everyone to know that we are all safe, have a place to live that is wonderful, and have already begun the process of repairing our lives. We know it's going to take awhile and we are prepared.

Last Sunday, October 26, I was awakened around 6 a.m., by the acrid smell of smoke. Clark had stayed up until the wee hours of the morning working on a forensic case that he’d been called to testify in on Monday morning and it seemed like he’d barely gone to bed. We had been warned on the 11 o’clock news the night before of strong Santa Ana winds that would be blowing overnight, and like most San Diegans, had gone to bed with our windows open for ventilation because of the dry heat that comes with the winds. The smoke I woke to was something very different. We had known that a fire was burning in the mountains near Ramona, a community about 50 miles northeast of our house in Scripps Ranch because there had been news reports about it on the Saturday morning and evening news. Wildfires this time of year are a common happening and tend to strike in the hills and mountain areas of Southern California. Firefighters are generally prepared for them and residents are asked to do what they can to keep dry brush away from their homes and property year round. (Our homeowners association makes it mandatory for all of us to have a hundred feet of cleared land on the canyon side of our homes, and maintains this firebreak several times a year). These mountain fires are often terrible and consume many acres of wilderness area, but are usually contained by the setting of backfires that help confine the fire and eventually keep it from spreading. We smelled the smoke from the Ramona fire in our neighborhood on Saturday and simply assumed that the high winds were carrying it westward from Ramona toward the ocean. We never imagined that the fire would move 50 miles in just a few hours, jumping firebreaks, and crossing highways and freeways, and ultimately consume our neighborhood. Even now, in the aftermath, we can't make much sense of the path the fire took.

I had turned the television on at about 7 a.m. just to see where the fire was still burning, and believe it or not, only one station was saying anything about it and what they were saying was very, very little, mostly a re-hash of what was said at 11 p.m. the night before. We were informed that the fire was still in Ramona, though it had now moved closer to homes and was burning at a faster rate than anyone expected because of the high winds. I finally made Clark get up around 7:30 because I was getting nervous about how quickly the sky was changing from a blue morning sky to cloudy gray/black. I had closed all the windows in the house and it was starting to get warm inside. He reluctantly got up, groggy and wondering why I was so anxious about everything. Once he made it downstairs and took one look out our back door, he knew something was badly wrong.

By 8 a.m., we couldn't see the sun anymore from our back deck and the sky had turned almost black. We could definitely tell that something had very suddenly changed because ash was raining down and black clouds of smoke were boiling across the sky. Suddenly, one tv news reporter (that we actually know because he lives in our neighborhood and our kids were friends with his kids), was on tv, reporting from in front of his house saying that he had had neighbors calling him to report fire in the canyons in Scripps Ranch. Clark and I looked at each other and at that point, we decided to get some things together and leave the area just because of the intense smoke. Even though we’d closed all the windows, we really couldn't breathe very well inside our house and outside, it was impossible. Clark said to me, “Let’s just pretend that this is a dry run for evacuation and start gathering some things together in case we really do need to evacuate. We opened the garage door to pull our cars out so we could open all the car doors and load both our cars with stuff at the same time. At that very same moment, we were met with police and firemen running up both sides of the street banging on doors, yelling for everyone to stay calm and “evacuate immediately”. I immediately began to panic, literally felt my heart start thumping because I had just seen a fireman and a policeman looking me straight in the eye with fear and intention on their faces and yelling at us to “LEAVE NOW”! Clark was stunned but very calm; he took my hands and looked straight at me and told me to pack whatever I could in the next 5 minutes and be ready to go real quick. I didn’t know where to start or what to grab first. Clark grabbed a bunch of file boxes and I went into the office and got all our personal files. Clark literally yanked the cables from the back of the computer and then took as many as he could unplug from the wall. We ran upstairs, got suitcases down and started grabbing clothes from the closet and drawers. For whatever crazy reason, I grabbed stuff for Clark and not much for myself, figuring he would have to go back to work the next day and would need his suit and shirts for testifying in court. I didn’t even go into Claire or Natalie’s bedrooms, or the bonus room where a lot of photo albums were on shelves. As I rushed around, I tried to call Jes, Maggie, Claire, and Natalie but none of them answered their phone. I left crazy breathless messages for them, telling them that there was a fire and that we were being evacuated and asking what I should try to grab from their rooms. When they didn’t answer, I just didn’t go into their rooms figuring they already had their important things with them at school. Mostly though, I think I was somewhat in shock and couldn’t think straight about what to do next. I remember my hands shaking so badly and not being able to make them stop. Clark yelled up to tell me to take all the pictures from the upstairs hallway walls (that Natalie and I had just spent hours re-hanging after repainting the whole upstairs during the summer). There was a very large box that Clark had managed to bring up at some point and he told me to put them all in it. I grabbed every one and discovered that I couldn’t move the box because it was so heavy. I called for him to come help me take it down to the car and before I knew it, he came up, picked the box up like it weighed nothing and ran it down the stairs to put it in the back seat of my car. I couldn’t believe he was able to do that, but now I know what they mean by having super-human strength during times of extreme distress. Clark certainly did that day. After that, Clark said we’d better go.

When we opened our garage door to leave, Fairbrook Road’s two lanes had suddenly become three lanes of traffic going in one direction out of the neighborhood. It was unusually quiet and every driver had the same look on their faces: panic and fear. I remember thinking that there was probably more we could take and Clark and I walked quickly through the rooms downstairs before deciding that there was nothing else we could fit in the cars. Only much later did I remember what we should have grabbed, but of course, by then it was much too late to do anything about it). As we took one last look out our back door to the canyon behind our house, we could see flames starting to burn across the entire horizon. I had my camera in my pocket and took two last pictures. On our way to get in the car I noticed my Bose cd player sitting in the garage where I’d been listening to cds the day before while refinishing furniture with Maggie. I grabbed it, mostly because it was a gift from Clark and it had a radio, and for whatever reason, I thought we might need that. We had called dear friends in La Jolla who told us to come immediately to their house. Clark grabbed my hand and gave me a little smile and a kiss on the cheek and told me, “Don’t worry - I’m sure we’ll be able to come back after everything is over. They’ll get to our house before anything can happen to it.” Once on the road, I looked at my watch and found that we had actually just taken 10 minutes to run through our house and grab whatever we could and literally threw it in our cars. We were able to get most of the family pictures off our walls, the important household papers from our home office, a few clothes and shoes, and our cat "T.K.", who is 18 years old and was totally oblivious to all the chaos going on around her. I never ever thought we were saying a final goodbye to our house and everything still in it. We saw our next door neighbor Joanne, an art professor at San Diego State, wrangling her two dogs into her van and ran over to ask her if she needed any help to get her many, many works of art out of her house. She said a tiny bit wistful but said, “No…it’s just art. If I lose it, I can always make new stuff.” I was amazed! She told us to stay in touch with her and be safe. We all got into our cars and left at the same time.

We were out of our neighborhood within minutes because of police action to block our exit off the 15 freeway and the opening up of Pomerado Road, (the main road in and out of Scripps Ranch), to four lanes of traffic in one direction rather than just two lanes. They kept the emergency lane open for fire trucks and police racing into the Ranch. We had tried to call all our kids to let them know what was going on and unbelievably, we met Maggie and her boyfriend Kenton, in her little red Honda hatchback, coming to help us gather up things just at the exact same time we were leaving the area. I don’t know how they’d managed to get onto Fairbrook Road but we yelled and waved at them to turn around right in front of us to leave the area and go with us to La Jolla, where my best friend, Mary Lynn Gage lives. It was just too late to go back to the house or any reason and I just had to yell it out the window to Mags. She just looked so confused and sad when I told her and I knew right then what it was going to be like to have to tell the other girls.

Once we were safely away at our friends' house, we sat glued to the television trying to take in the fact that what we were seeing on television was our neighborhood going up in flames. It was just incredible to behold. Mary Lynn and Rusty had made breakfast for us and we just all quietly ate, none of us knowing what to say. The Gages said that they could see the black smoke in the eastern distance, but never even considered that it might be our neighborhood. Later on, when Mary Lynn convinced me to go for a walk on the beach to get out of the house, we were met with a little snowstorm of falling ash raining down on us. We just looked at each other - didn’t even say a word; she just hugged me and we kept walking, both of us thinking that that ash might be part of our house. We spent the whole of Sunday just quietly contemplating what life might be like for us if our house really had burned to the ground. Clark fielded calls from all our friends and family, and talked with our other girls trying to keep them up to date with any information we were seeing on tv. All they really wanted to know was if the house had survived. Maggie and Kenton sat in the backyard at our friend’s house talking and occasionally, I’d see Mags wipe away tears. The fire consumed every moment on every station on local tv, and we switched channels constantly trying to find any station broadcasting from our area or street to find out if the fire had actually reached our house or had somehow skipped over it. At some point, Natalie called, a little hysterically, from her dorm at UC-Davis to tell us that she’d seen our address on a fire website that said it was a total loss. She also said her friends from Scripps had been calling her all day to tell her whose houses were gone, and when we told her that we had no confirmation of any of that ourselves, she calmed down a little. She wanted to come home right away, as did Jessica and Claire. At first I didn’t want them to have to deal with any of what was going on - Natalie and Claire were in school, and Jes had just started a new job. I quickly realized that they couldn’t really focus on what school or work when their hearts were in San Diego with us and what was going on here.

It wasn't until Monday that we actually got confirmation that our house was really gone. The mayor had issued a statement asking everyone to stay home from work and keep kids home from school for a week. The air quality was very poor and there were actually still fires burning in different areas of San Diego. The courts were all dark because of the mayor’s edict so Clark didn’t have to worry about testifying. The Monday following the fire, Clark got up really early and drove back to Scripps Ranch to see what he could find out. Fire and police weren’t letting anyone into the neighborhoods because the ashes of the homes were still too hot to let anyone go walking around on them and they really didn’t want to have anyone get hurt, and they said there was still the possibility of flare-up. Clark said that even though it was very early morning, there was quite a group of residents, mostly men, gathered at the corner of Pomerado and Semillon wanting information. Eventually, police agreed to take down addresses, a few at a time, and do a quick drive-by to see if the house was still standing. Clark said he gave ours and waited with everyone else to hear the news. When the policeman came back with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, Clark said you’d either hear a small cheer, or nothing. Some people cried or just turned and walked away when they got the bad news. Clark said he just stood there for a minute, taking it in. It was a lot to handle and he was all by himself when he heard. Then, he drove back and told me. What I wanted to do when I heard was just scream and cry but I just sat down and then the tears came. My friend cried and hugged me and told me that it was going to be okay. What could anyone say or do to make it okay? I had known the house was probably gone but until you actually see your address on an emergency website and get those calls from friends who had snuck in under the cover of darkness to see for themselves, you just live in denial that it can't possibly be true that the house you thought you'd be returning to is really gone. Clark told me a day or two later that he had called our house at 10:10 that Sunday morning and the line was insistently busy, a sure sign that there was no longer a phone at our house. We’d left around 8:45 that morning thinking we’d be back and now there is nothing to go back to.

Jessica flew in on Monday night from her home with David in Providence, Rhode Island, and I must say that it is a relief to have her here. She is somewhat in shock at what has happened, but still has the ability to be a bit removed since she didn’t actually see what we saw. She’s very proactive and positive, trying to keep our spirits up and always telling us that we’ll find a way to deal with whatever we may find when we get to go back to our neighborhood. She’s right and we will.

We didn't actually get in to see our house until Tuesday afternoon. Fireman and police continued to patrol our neighborhood to keep people from entering because there were still numerous hotspots and small flare-ups. Scripps Ranch was famous for it’s eucalyptus groves and now all the trees in our area are black and brown, burned to the point of instability if they are still standing. Jes, Maggie, and I joined hundreds of people on Tuesday afternoon at the entrance to our neighborhood, and one by one, as they checked our driver's licenses to verify our address, were allowed walked in to see what was left of where we had lived for so long. Clark met up with us a little while later. At first all we saw were homes that were untouched by the fire, though all landscape and canyon areas were burned right up to the homes themselves. It was kind of amazing to realize that some homes had actually managed to survive that inferno. Then a block later we came to the first indication of how the fire had completely obliterated whole blocks. Just complete devastation. Everywhere we looked we saw what was left of the homes of close friends, burned utterly to the ground. Everywhere were the skeletons of cars in driveways, bare brick chimney stacks, and here and there, the semi-recognizable remains of bathtubs and barbeques. It was shocking and so unbelievably sad to see these homes gone. All you think of when you see your friends' home in rubble is all the happy times you've spent there, watching your kids and their kids do silly things, the backyard cookouts; it all just floods back. You keep thinking how bad and sad this must be for them.

Then we turned up our street and it was worse than we could have imagined. Every turn revealed another inconsolable family in the street looking at the destruction of their home. Adults and kids were everywhere, crying and hugging each other, staring in disbelief. Everything was a shade of black, brown or gray. Every once in awhile a piece of green lawn peeked oddly through where no rubble fell. Policemen and firemen slowly trawled the street making sure only residents were walking onto the actual home sites. Again, the unusual quiet in a neighborhood that should be teeming with kids, cars, bikes, and noise. A few media walked the street trying to talk to residents who had nothing much to say except to express their incredulity and shock at it all. The neighbors whose houses survived were at a loss as to what to say, every one of them feeling guilty that their house had survived.

When we got to our own house, we all held hands and just sobbed at the totality of the burn. You just stand there and stare and try to find anything recognizable that might welcome you back, but there is absolutely nothing. The fireplaces and chimneys look naked and sad that only they survived. We tried to get our bearings and figure out what part of the house fell where, but it was impossible in the fading light of the late afternoon, so we just walked around the perimeter of the house to see what path the fire took. I’m not sure how, but some good friends (Gary and Peggy Hetherington) were waiting for us when we arrived at our house and they cried with us for our loss, having been there so many times over the years for happy occasions. They just walked with us in silence, looking over the rubble, being careful not to step on anything that might be precious. None of us could talk very much. Trying to take it all in is too much at first and you don't know what to do or where to start. The beautiful slate walkway to our front door is shattered and splintered having been crushed beneath the falling house. The rose bed that we so lovingly cared for was burned to the ground and gone. The trees in the front yard exploded and weirdly, were in a star shape on the front lawn making it hard to walk around them. You keep looking at it all again and again trying to make some sense of it, but, really, everything is just gone.

After a little while, we started to realize that the fire had had it's own way with our neighborhood. The winds had whipped it here and there, throwing sparks every which way - there truly was no rhyme or reason to it's path. Our two neighbors to the west (including the art professor) had their homes spared, but our neighbors to the north and east of us lost their homes like us. When we made our way to the back canyon, where we'd seen flames starting as we fled, we were shocked to see that the fire had not made it to our back fence and had in fact been held back quite a way. The lantana and geranium flowers just outside our fence and in the canyon were still blooming with bright little flowers. Our next-door neighbor whose house had survived, had burn right up to her fence and all through her back yard but her house had been spared. How did her house not burn up? Our neighbors across the street lost their home despite having a tile roof and stucco. Again, we believe it was the wind that blew burning embers all over the place and wherever the embers could find a foothold, such as in a tree, on a roof, or dry brush, it took the opportunity to flare up.

It got dark pretty soon after we got there and the police made everyone leave again. We made a plan to return the next day to start looking through the ashes. Clark didn't want to disturb any part of the ruins until Natalie and Claire could return home to see the house as we saw it. Thinking of them seeing it for the first time as we did was too much for me. Natalie is our one child who does not like change, and fights hard to keep every remnant of her life the same, never minding if things get outdated or old. Claire can appear strong on the outside but is really a softie on the inside and deals with trauma like we all do, with lots of tears and the need for hugs. Natalie did arrive on Wednesday morning, after a long flight on Tuesday night that had to return to Sacramento because of fog in San Diego, and Claire came in on Thursday morning with her boyfriend, Ransom Boynton.

It breaks your heart in a different way to see your children searching through rubble for any little treasure from their young lives, knowing that they probably won’t find anything. After awhile though, when your friends come over and your kids’ friends come over, many with their parents, and your neighbors keep stopping by to see if you need anything or give you a tidbit of information, you start to realize that there are a lot of people who are going to be looking out for you and making sure that you’re taken care of in one way or another. It really is going to be a long haul, but we are going to be okay eventually.

We sifted through the rubble for 5 days and we found a few little things: 4 sets of ceramic baby bootie Christmas ornaments, unbroken, even though all the glaze and decoration has been burned off of them. They were in a box of tons of other Christmas ornaments in the storage loft of our garage. They were found in the ash spread over the entire lot of our house. A very sweet find! Nat found clumps of melted coins - $175 worth – in the area of where her upstairs bedroom fell to the ground. Claire found a piece of a front yard tree t
hat she’d carved her initials on as a kid. Maggie found odds and ends of things for others, but really nothing of her own. She lost lots of books and pictures that were being stored at our house. Thankfully, Jes had nearly all of her pictures and things with her in Rhode Island, but did lose her beautiful wedding gown, that had been cleaned and carefully boxed for storage after her wedding. Clark lost his wedding band and says he feels naked without it. He and I think about all the stuff we should have grabbed; we see it all in our mind’s eye and know exactly where it is in the old house. We keep telling ourselves not to feel guilty about not grabbing those most precious things, but I think David’s mother, Carter Flemming, put it best, “We carry pictures in our minds and hearts that no camera can ever adequately capture, of loved ones gone from us and experiences that only happen once in a lifetime.” So true.

After 5 days, and sweeping the entire foundation clean, literally, we stopped our sifting and have begun the task of starting over. Someone told us it might take two years or more. Wow…I can’t even think in those terms yet. We’ve also left our friend’s house in La Jolla. For now we have been given the use of a beautiful beach house in Del Mar, thanks to some generous people at our church. It’s not where we want to be, of course, but what a lovely respite for the time being. We’ll be able to spend the holidays there with all our children and we’re really looking forward to that.

Thanks for all your calls, cards, thoughts and prayers. We’ll stay in touch and give updates as time goes by. We’re going to be okay.

Love, Kathy

UPDATE: This final picture is of Clark many months after the fire. By this time the lot has long been cleared, as have others in the neighborhood, we have gotten plans for the new house drawn up by an architect, and have settled on a builder. You can see the capricious nature of the fire across the street where one house survived (the lady who took those pictures after we had all left!), and many on either side did not. Anyway, Clark is standing in front of what became our koi pond. We had invited a bunch of people over for a "lot party" complete with barbeque and drinks for toasting our new house. Clark outlined it with rocks we found on site and did the official groundbreaking by taking a shovelful of dirt from the soon-to-be koi pond! It was a great day!
xo AK

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