This wasn’t the post I had queued up for today, but things got a little bit real here in what is usually paradise.
The temperature was forecast to go into triple digits, the humidity into single digits, and the winds were expected to howl from the east. Santa Ana conditions, as we call them. These winds that blow in from the desert suck the moisture out of everything in their path, leaving the already drought-stricken vegetation as crispy and ready to ignite. We expect this stuff in October. We DON’T expect it in May, when it’s normally overcast, cool and grey.
At times like this, we in Southern California quietly put essentials like dog food next to the door, and casually throw a few gallon jugs of water into the back of the car, and we make a mental note of where the Box of Important Papers is.
We photographers in Southern California also do things like makes sure every darned photo file is backed up…. an addition to the usual things one finds in a “bug out bag” that should include those things you would require to survive for 3-4 days.
The Santa Anas arrived with a vengeance on Tuesday. By the afternoon, hundreds of people and horses had evacuated from the Carmel Valley area, including Steffen and Shannon Peters, Guenter Seidel and Christine Traurig. These folks are well versed in evacuation plans, and everyone safely spent a couple of nights at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
Wednesday was worse: hotter, windier, drier, and, we think, an arsonist thrown into the mix for good measure. Nine separate fires started in San Diego. Two of them were vehicle fires, which are explainable, although the truck on fire at the north end of Pendleton closed the 5 all day long.
The other seven fires…. well, they all started at the east end of open, tinder-dry areas with a lot of fuel available. First Pendleton, then Carlsbad, then a third in Bonsall…. I could see all those plumes from my driveway. There were others popping up that I couldn’t see. I kept watching the ridge to our east, because if there is a threat in these conditions, that is where it will come from.
I was watching the fire news, as I had been, nonstop, and looked up from the laptop to see a column of black smoke towering over the ridge. Tinto was the first thing in the car – good luck keeping him out of the car,, if there was packing going on! Cameras, computers, a few changes of clothes. A pillow. A little non-perishable food. I didn’t see any police or firemen yet, and I didn’t know where I was going yet, I just knew that evacuation time had arrived.
I called neighbors to make sure they knew there was an imminent threat. I called Axel, who was teaching in North Carolina. I called Security to let them know they didn’t have to waste time checking my house for occupants.
I didn’t go far. I wanted to get to someplace high and safe, where I could see the big picture. I found a parking lot with some shade across the way from the neighborhood, and from there I could see the entire scene. That’s where I took these photos.
The fire was a monster, racing up the side of Double Peak, where I often hike. There’s a lot of unburned fuel up there, and I’ve been saying for years that a few controlled burns might go a long way toward fire control. Double Peak Park is at the very pinnacle, and in that park is exactly one tall tree. I expected that tree to light up like a Roman candle as the flames roared through the chaparral. But at the top, the fire met the changing wind, which was now lofting in from the ocean, and doubled back on itself. A few moments later, I saw what had been the back edge of the fire become the leading edge and rip up into the Coronado Hills, engulfing several houses.
Finally, the wind calmed as the sun began to set. The smoke turned from black to white. By now I knew I wasn’t going back to the house that night: regardless of the wind direction, there was just too much fire, and it could go too far, too fast to take that chance. I headed to a friend’s house, where we were joined by another friend who was evacuated with her three cats. Tinto now thinks that this whole “evacuation” thing must be code for “cats to chase!”
We are safe. And we are still watching the news, because the Coco Fire is still raging today. But be assured: I have the hard drives with your files on them. Every single one.