I’m not in San Diego now, but back in 2007 during the Rancho Bernardo “Witch Fire” I was in the thick of it. It’s strange how disaster and tragedy can bring out the best or worst in people. It tends to draw partners closer together … or pull them further apart. The is my story of how that fire did the latter.
My backyard growing up.
For those unfamiliar with Southern California, brush fires are commonplace. I grew up in a suburb on the outskirts of San Diego where our house was the very last one on a well known street, on the edge of the entire town. Our backyard opened to miles and miles of hills covered in dry sage and chaparral.
Over the years we evacuated our home a handful of times while firefighters worked to contain a brush fire in the hills. These usually occurred in summertime when weeks of dry weather had sapped all the moisture out of the hills, or in early fall when a Santa Ana wind pattern had reversed the off-shore winds and brought dry desert air. At these times the brush would lite up easily with a flicked cigarette or a spark from a recreational vehicle.
Each time we evacuated, it was only for a few hours and then we were always allowed to return home where we had something exciting to share with our classmates the next day in school. We all knew first hand the details of heavy smoke, firetrucks in our front yards and low flying aircraft delivering water or fire retardant. All of us kids knew what to take and where it was if we ever needed to evacuate: First, each other. We were to double check that every person was accounted for, Then, grab the family photo albums and the file box where my parents kept all their important documents and financial records. That was it. Everything else could be replaced.
Fast forward to October 22, 2007. I’d been sharing a home with my one and only relationship since the divorce, what I considered at the time to be THE relationship of my life. Al and I were deeply in love. We’d been together for a year and a half; in our new home in Rancho Bernardo for 6 months. We shared it with his two teenage sons. My four children shared it with us one night a week and every other weekend. This particular weekend the kids were with me.
While I was still in love and I believed he was too, things weren’t perfect. I was running my own business out of our home but he was a consultant on a project in Orange County so he was staying there 4-5 days a week. Still, the issue that created a wedge between us wasn’t our time away from each other. It was the kids. He wasn’t that much help. In fact, it felt like more work with him around rather than me just having the kids alone. I got along well with his sons and he with my children. Once and only once I saw a side of him interacting with my kids that deflated a major portion of the rose-colored glasses I still wore after 18 month. I tend to have an inner zero tolerance policy for some things. This was one of them.
Before getting serious with one another he swore he loved my kids and that his experience of raising his sons would surely help. I bought it in spite of our clearly different approaches. I’m more the nurturing, “let’s talk it out” dad of my generation and younger. He was more the strict, “you”ll do what I say even if I am being irrational” father of an older generation (he was 6 years older than me). I guess that’s fine and sometimes needed with teenage boys, but it’s a bit over the top with a silly 8 year old girl. Once, just once, he let the irrational older guy come out on my daughter in a way that was inappropriate for an adult to speak to a child and a large portion of my love immediately deflated. This was just a week or two before the fire.
I was in that head space of wanting to resuscitate the affection and respect of the relationship and not knowing how. Al apologized but it was more as a result of my demand than of actually recognizing he’d done wrong. I began to see the temper in his dealings with his own sons. I’m sure it was there all along but I suddenly gained the ability to see it and I found it distastful.
We’d gone to bed on Saturday night knowing there were fires several miles away up in the mountains. When Al and I woke up the smell of fire was strong. Outside the visibility couldn’t have been more than 30-40 feet. The kids were still asleep. I turned the TV to a local station to see if I could learn anything.
The fire had apparently traveled down the canyon overnight. Highway 15, the main artery to downtown was now apparently closed. I still couldn’t get a feel for exactly where the fire currently burned or where it was headed. As I scanned the TV stations an old high school friend with whom I’d recently reconnected called me on my cell phone.
“Are you alright”
“Yes. But we just woke up and can’t tell how close it is”
“It’s in Rancho Bernardo! Get out of there! Hurry!”
“Where am I supposed to go? We have nowhere to go.”
“Come stay with me.”
“I have the kids with me. All four of them.”
“I have couches. Come now!”
Al and I stared at each other shocked at the gravity of the situation.
“Kirsten invited us to go stay with her. Her home is safe. Let’s go.”
“You go take the kids. I’ll drive down to my son’s fraternity house and stay with him.”
Now, I get wanting to be with your loved ones in an emergency. I do. But we’d been telling each other the story that we were a family now and yet here we were in an emergency going our own separate ways. I clearly wasn’t going to take my kids to a frat house for shelter! And he’d decided not to stay with me. We were on our own.
If his display of coming unglued at my daughter days earlier didn’t end it for me, that did.
I still had no idea how near the fire was. I later heard that the entire neighborhood had been evacuated earlier via reverse 911 calls but since we didn’t have a land line they missed us. As soon as I hung up with Kirsten the TV went out. I immediately kicked it into high gear, “save my family” mode.
I went in to my kids’ room, woke them up calmly, told them to put on clothes quickly and that we’d grab breakfast somewhere else. It took them only one look out the window to know that something was wrong. The smoke was thick and it gives a pinkish, orangish, greyish glow. Amid their barrage of questions and my “I don’t knows”, I led them to the car. They’d grabbed bandanas and were covering their mouths to breathe. All along I believed, and was trying to portray to them, that we were just being careful and that we weren’t in any real danger.
Our home was about a mile from I-15, but because the one piece of helpful information that I did get from the TV was that I-15 was closed I chose to head south on our street which was essentially parallel to the 15 and would get us farther from where I assumed the fire would be. About 50 yards south of our driveway we crested a hill and saw the entire opposite side of the ravine on fire … where I was headed. All at once I stopped to turn the car around. The kids began to freak out, and a cop pulled up along side me.
“What the hell are you doing? Where do you think you are going?”
“I don’t know I’m trying to get out! We just woke up and I heard that the 15 was closed so I headed this way.”
“That’s the only safe place right now. Turn around get to the 15 and get out of here.”
Photo taken after the fire. This is the road I was driving to escape. At those homes in the top right is where I stopped and the policeman told me to turn around before I traveled down the hill towards the position of the cameraman in this photo.
Sensing the policeman’s urgency the kids outwardly freaked out a little more.
I did the same, inwardly.
Turned around and passing the home we’d just left only seconds earlier, we saw heavy smoke up ahead too. Turning another corner, there were fallen flaming tree branches in the middle of the road that I need to swerve to avoid. We passed at least 2 burning homes. Other than the policeman, there was not a car, person or firefighter in sight.
Everything was desolate and deserted even the I-15, a six lane (in each direction) major highway. For the first 2-3 miles alone on the freeway, we saw the smoke and devastation of fire on either side … homes burned to the ground. I always found it odd how fire selected certain homes on a street while next door a home could stand untouched. It doesn’t take out a whole neighborhood like you’d think. But neither does it certainly show any mercy for the burned down home. There usually isn’t much left to salvage.
We soon made it to Kirsten’s house and the rest of the day is a blur. She was incredibly kind and generous to take all five of us in. The next day my ex-wife came to get the kids and Al traveled back up to Orange County for work. I was alone, so I tried to return home to see if we still had one. When I got close I found that the neighborhood was still blockaded. The police informed me that they didn’t know when we’d be able to go back. It could be a day, it could be weeks before we knew if our house was standing.
I turned the car around, drove back on the 15 alone. For the first time in my life I felt completely alone and homeless.
I had no idea where to go and what to do. Yes, I probably could have returned to Kirsten’s house, but I really felt that I’d sapped her generosity as much as I wanted to. She was a single Mom with 2 teenage kids of her own, a full-time teaching job. In the last 24+ hours she’d gone far above and beyond in her hospitality. I didn’t want to abuse that by showing up at her doorstep again.
I’d heard earlier that the stadium had been set up to temporarily house thousands of displaced folks like myself. But in the wake of Hurricane Katrina 2 years early, I didn’t have a very safe impression of what I’d find there.
Then, as I turned onto the 15, I changed the radio station and heard the tail-end of a report about the fires and the shelter at the stadium. The reporter mentioned that the stadium was crowded but that a local hotel was offering a free night’s stay for displaced families! I typed the numbers into my phone as the reporter uttered them. I didn’t even know what the name of the hotel was or where it was located but it surely had a bed. That’s all I needed. I hit send immediately assuming the hotel offer was a Quality Inn or Motel 6 in the suburbs.
I got the front desk immediately and made a reservation for that day telling them about the news report I had just heard… They confirmed my address to make sure I was indeed in the fire evacuation zone. As the call ended, I had to ask for the hotel name and location. I didn’t recognize it but I drove straight there.
This was no Motel 6.
I was tired, lonely, stressed, and emotional… the way you get the day after a funeral of a loved one. The kids were now safely with their mom 80 miles away. My partner was 120 miles away at work and yet I sensed the distance was more than miles. I felt the loss of what was supposed to be the love of my life. My work emergencies were at least held at bay for a day or two. My employees were safe.
I’m one of those people who rarely cry. I usually bottle it up inside for months or even years. Then, when it does come out it’s a flood of unreleased tears over minor and major infractions all mixed together.
I cried that day when I walked into my hotel room. It was on the ocean in Pacific Beach with a memory foam bed, down comforters and calming modern decor.
Tower 23 Hotel
Stay there if you are ever in San Diego.
I got a night free and I felt a tad guilty for it. After all, it was supposed to be for displaced families and I was just some divorced, single dude. When I checked out the next day I asked curiously how many other families took advantage of their amazing generosity. I was shocked to hear that only two of us even called!!
I felt so fortunate and rejuvenated after my night there…. a bath, a nighttime walk on the beach, a drink in the hotel bar, sleeping in late on the amazingly magnetic bed, breakfast at a beachfront dive. I left prepared to attack the challenges ahead… the inevitable break up with my partner, the coordination of work challenges caused by the fire.
It was still four more days before I could return home, but none of the rest matters. My life changed dramatically after that fire. The kids and I had a terrifying but exciting story to tell. I left Al and our home not long after, knowing I was making a wise choice and that I could handle anything life threw at me … alone or not.
Just like the fires of my childhood, when fire struck I knew what to take and what to leave behind.