INTO THE ASHES: RESIDENTS RETURN TO MOUNT LAGUNA

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By Nadin Abbott

July 11, 2013 (Mount Laguna) –Amid the devastation on Mount Laguna, one ironic symbol stands out: a flag flying at half-mast.  Flown to honor the Prescott Arizona Hot Shot crew that perished at the Yarnell fire, the flag at the Al Bahr Shrine Camp survived the Chariot blaze, while much of the camp was reduced to ashes.

As of 6 p.m. last night, Sunrise Highway was reopened at both old Highway 80 and Highway 79, though it remained shut down from Los Huecos Road  (milepost 24.5) in Mt  Laguna, to Kwaaymii Point ( milepost 30).  The fire has burned over 7,000 acres and is 70 percent contained.

First responders assess the damage

“It makes me very sad,” Lieutenant Rose Kurupas with the San Diego Sheriff’s office said of the devastation.  But she resolved, “These are good people, they’ll rebuild. You’ll see, it will be better than ever.”

Visiting the site late yesterday, we both were amazed that the flag survived while the firestorm took so much. We were also amazed at what else did--and did not--survive.

The destruction, and the randomness of it, made little sense. Some of the small cabins--chairs on the decks and all--are intact while large buildings that have been there for decades are gone.

While walking through the camp, we found a crew from the U.S. Forest Service.  Crew members told ECM that they were "dropping the trees that were unsafe” for residents. The crews looked exhausted as they moved on to touch yet another old tree that sadly did not survive the firestorm. It looked blackened though intact, but would fall later since it was so damaged, they explained.

As I drove further down Sunrise Highway, now a lunar landscape, a few spots of green and yellow were quite visible. Storm Canyon and Cottonwood Canyon were filled with burnt trees and white ash.

I came across a hot shot crew; one of the hot shot firefighters explained that they were "securing the flank." They were also patrolling the perimeter foot by foot, looking for hot spots. Under the ash, there might still be a hot ember that a brisk wind could fan into a new blaze.

Fortunately, the weather has cooled. The air has turned muggy with a promise of rain. The shift away from hot, dry conditions has helped fire crews a lot.

Firefighters explained that another problem they face is that fire can get into the root system of trees and start another spot fire further up the line, if there is fuel left. Worst are the downed tree, since they can remain hot far longer than mere ashes. The firefighters were also “putting down the hazard trees.”

Part of the recovery effort will include foot patrols from the edges towards the center of the fire, where all this backbreaking work needs to be done. Also troubling: manzanita burns very hot and can remain such for upwards of a month. 

The People Come Back

Earlier, waiting at the Laguna Lodge  for the hard road block to be lifted set by the CHP, we saw a small truck race by with Sheriffs escort. It was Nica Knite, racing down to the Pine House Café and Tavern. She was escorted early; she and her staff went immediately to work. They were getting ready to continue to feed fire crews, as they had done right up until they were evacuated earlier in the fire.

Knite voiced relief that “my place is still here,” then went to work. Officer Rosales of the fire service told ECM earlier in the day that Knite had been feeding hot shot crews, and other crews from all over during the incident. I saw her feeding crews from the Forest Services and the Mt. Palomar Fire crew tonight, as well as the Mt. Laguna Volunteers early on.

The residents whose homes survived just went home. Others  went to the checkpoint and found what they could, then drove back down the mountain. 

A Cedar Fire Survivor gives back, shares memories sparked by the blaze

On the way back, I stopped at the Red Cross Shelter at the Joan McQueen Middle School in Alpine. I know how important information is for people affected by disasters. I also know that the media already pretty moved on, not pausing to share details with the fire survivors.  The shelter had four people in it; a few would still stay overnight, as the evacuations have not been completely lifted. They were thankful that somebody thought of them.

According to Sue Mayberry, the Shelter Manager for the American Red Cross, they had 10 registrations. The people at the shelter are doing well, and spirits were high, as I could see.  People were sharing popcorn. The shelter is slated to stay open through this afternoon.

Alpine resident Kris Clark came to bring games and a deck of cards for those at the shelter. She lost everything in the 2003 Cedar Fire, and she remembers those who were kind to her back then.

The only thing that she did not lose in that firestorm were her two dogs. Her shelter rescue dog saved her life that night,  she recalled, but he died last year. She lived  in Lakeside’s Wildcat Canyon at the time and the dog woke her up. She remembers “coming out and seeing the sky and thinking how beautiful it was.” Then she realized it was a fire.

Clark is very thankful for the reverse emergencay alert call system that has since been established. It will save lives, she believes. After all, if it wasn’t for her dog…she might not be here.

One of her regrets from the fire is that while she got her dogs out, she did not get her cats out. To this day she is still asking, "What if?"

She lost everything, and what she misses most are  photos burned in the blaze. “It is true what they say, you miss the photos,” she mused adding that she especially regrets not “picking up the picture of my mother, it was by the door.”

She also praised Federal Emergency Management ( FEMA ) workesr, who were “kind people.” She was a renter so she got a couple thousand dollars to replace material items. But to this day, she says, “I don’t want stuff.”

Her daughter encouraged filing, but she was too numb and in the beginning did not want to file, did not want to deal with the reality of her losse.

Clark now has a list of things to grab and in a more recent fire, she took all her documents to work every day, fearing losing those again.

Clark also recounted the story of her elderly neighbor, who travelled all over the world, including the Amazon at age 90. This older woman lived at the end of the road. So before evacuating  Clark went to get her, but found to her surprise that her neighbor—all of her neighbors, in fact, had already left. Her 90-year-old neighbor lost  a home that she had been living in for over 70 years. 

Two years later, Clark met up with her again.  With the money she got from FEMA and insurance, her older neighbor had  moved to a seniors’  home and was happy.

These days, Clark has a list of things to grab on the refrigerator. These include not only her documents, but photos, and a coffee maker. She lost her coffee maker, and recounts going to Target with her daughter and seeing items that she used to own.  Such reminders of what she has lost are still hard.  

But to Clark, it’s important to return the kindness paid to her after the Cedar Fire, including help  from the American Red Cross.  Her dream is to one day join the Red Cross and help more people in need—people like those here during the Chariot Fire.

Recovery is hard, and it is an ongoing process.

 

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Update

@CAL_FIRE: #ChariotFire [update] off Sunrise Hwy, east of Julian (San Diego County) is 7,055 acres & 90% contained. http://t.co/rAnd5oH7tM

Update

@CAL_FIRE: #ChariotFire [update] off Sunrise Hwy, east of Julian (San Diego County) is 7,055 acres & 90% contained. http://t.co/rAnd5oH7tM

Evacuations lifted

@CALFIRESANDIEGO: The Chariot Fire is now 85% contained and the acres remain 7055. All evacuations lifted for residents at 7pm. #ChariotFire