For those of you who asked what the burned areas looked like before the fire, here are a few shots taken during a wetter spring a few years ago. While not of precisely the same scene, these were taken from a spot at the top of Double Peak within a few yards of where I took the the burn photos.
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.
The evacuation orders for my neighborhood were lifted yesterday. Tinto and I made our cautious way past the lake, where Marine helicopters had been filling their water buckets the day before for aerial drops on the fire lines, and up the hill to the house. There were yellow knots of caution tape on the mailboxes, put there by police as they had gone door to door to mark that there were no occupants that would need rescuing if the worst happened. I knew of a few stalwart folk who, experienced in the ways of wildfires, had stayed, but by the looks of things, I was one of the first to return.
It was eerily quiet, therefore. The temperature outside was 98 degrees, but I was startled to walk into a pleasantly cool house. I realized that in my dash to leave, I’d forgotten to turn off the air conditioning, and I cringed to think of what the filter would look like. Everything else was just how I’d left it, of course, but with the mayhem of the past two days, it seemed strange that it was.
I looked around at the art on the walls, and thought of all the other paintings that were in the studio. I’d made a conscious decision to leave them all: transporting art is never without risk, when I’d left I hadn’t known where I was going, and I simply couldn’t choose which to bring with me. But the one thing I’d realized, lying awake that first night, was that I had all the hard drives containing everyone else’s photos, but I hadn’t thought to grab my own. Photos of Axel’s and my childhoods, families, our wedding, scattered around the house, not readily grab-able, many of them the only surviving copies. I vowed that the coming weekend would be dedicated to digitizing them.
There was ash on the deck, flecks of white that had gathered wherever there was anything for it to stick to; a cobweb, flowers, the fabric of the deck chairs. But not as much as I’d expected: when we had lived on Coronado, the ash that had floated for literally miles from the 2003 wildfire had crunched underfoot when we walked outside. That was the year that the entire city of San Diego had shut down because of the smoke cloud that had blanketed it.
The last thing I had done before leaving was to open the pool cover, in case the fire fighters needed the water for their hoses. There were bits of dark ash on the top step, and when I picked one up, I realized it was a charred leaf. It had flown at least a mile on the wind, and I wondered if it had still been an ember when it had landed in the water. I kicked off my sandals and Tinto and I stepped in up to our knees…. and we both just stood there a long time, staring at the cloud of the Las Pulgas fire, 15 miles away and in the process of burning 15,000 acres, that was towering over all of Camp Pendelton.
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.