I awoke to cool air coming in the window and a mockingbird chortling on the roof above my bedroom window. It was a normal May Gray morning, which is saying a lot, considering the past week. I think folks are a little antsy though: I glanced through a local chat board and someone who had seen the fog rolling through the valley had posted, “OMG, is that smoke from another fire?????”
Nope, just the welcome return of our old friend Coastal Eddy. Good to see you, dude!
Sitting on the deck with my coffee, looking north as the sun burned off the haze, it was as if nothing had happened. The sky was decorated with benign cirrus clouds and there was not a hint of smoke to be seen. So Tinto and I headed out to scope out the damage.
Our first stop was Discovery Lake, 1.5 miles away in the valley to the east of us. This neighborhood, directly in the path of that first raging wave of fire, had been one of the first to be evacuated, and one of the last to be repopulated, being directly under the most advantageous flight path for the water-dropping helicopters. This is one of my regular hiking routes, with a loop around the small lake itself and then the trail that goes all the way up to the top of the mountain to Double Peak Park.
It was quiet. We almost had the place to ourselves. Normally at ten o’clock on a Sunday morning we would be playing dodge-em with less-than-socialized dogs that only go for walks on weekends, mothers pushing jogging strollers and kids wobbling on bikes with training wheels.
I headed uphill and passed through a Discovery Hills neighborhood about a third of the way up the mountain. On the uphill side of the houses, on the gate to the trail/access road that continued to the summit, the neighborhood kids had hung a sign that said “Thank you, Fire Fighters!” And just as I was admiring it, a red LAFD pickup rolled past me and up the trail.
I followed it a little ways. 50 yards beyond the houses, the hillside was utterly blackened. The wooden fence that had lined the trail had been reduced to charred stumps. The chaparral that had been so thick and inviting to the fire was now a landscape without color: grey earth, black sticks of manzanita and ceanothus bushes, dessicated dots of white that had been sage. Ash devils that were rising, cyclonic, even in the gentle morning breeze. And there were firefighters with water-filled backpacks, damping down hot spots.
I didn’t need to be in the way. Tinto seemed relieved to head back down the hill: I’m sure he’s been associating the smell of smoke with my being anxious.
Instead I drove around the mountain and up Twin Oaks Valley Road, past Cal State San Marcos, and past the development directly above it, behind which the Cocos Fire had started. I continued all the way to the very top, and it seemed that a lot of folks had had the same idea.
Cal Fire had set up a command post at Double Peak Park. It’s a perfect vantage point, with plenty of parking and a 360 degree view. The fire department vehicles had plates from many states. There was a crowd of people, some taking pictures, some wrangling small fry, but mostly just staring at the burn. Those that I spoke to were all locals, and now that they’d gotten a look at the extent of the destruction, they were, like me, in awe of the fact that so few structures were lost and amazed that they had houses to go back to.
I saw two fire fighters from San Jacinto in full gear, and I realized that a sort of receiving line had formed spontaneously: these guys had been hot-spotting and were returning to the truck, and people were stopping them to express their gratitude and to shake their hands. Someone had brought their new Dalmation puppy, who when his mom stopped to chat with the men, sat himself right down in front of them. Pictures, of course were taken.
The division leader was there as well. Those pictures I posted the other day of the fire racing up the hill? He was there. He said those flames were 30 feet over their heads and they hadn’t been sure they’d be able to stop it at the summit. I thought of the entire zip code of San Elijo Hills, spread out behind me on the southwest side of the mountain. If it had gone over the crest…. There was still a spider web of hoses on the ground in the park, and I wondered how many fire fighters had been there, massed against the monster flames, yet invisible in my pictures.
His hand was being pumped, and he was listening to thanks and congratulations, from people who spoke for the thousands of houses that were saved, and the tens of thousands of people who were safe because of them. But he kept shaking his head.
“I’m sorry, ” he said. “We lost some houses. I’m sorry we couldn’t save them all.”
This is SO not just a job for these guys.
And all I can do is say thank you. Again. From all of us.