By Jamie Reno
Exclusive for East County Magazine
October 15, 2008 (Tierrasanta) - Morning has broken. As the sun rises over the East County, a sense of calm permeates my body. Yesterday morning, when I started writing this column for East County Magazine on the new fire threats, it was a different story. I was filled with anxiety. The theme of the piece I was about to write had pretty much been decided for me: Oh, no, here we go again!
That’s been the prevailing sentiment in the Reno home for the last 48 hours as we (along with most of you reading this, I suspect) have tried to maintain a brave face, an outward calm for our daughter’s sake while on the inside we anxiously endure the arrival of another dreaded San Diego County autumn fire season. To put it another way: I’ve always loved Halloween in San Diego County. But I’m learning to hate it.
In the last couple of days, five substantial wildfires have been reported in San Diego County. As usual, they’ve pretty much surrounded me to the north and east. I live east of Interstate 15 just south of Highway 52, on the northern edge of Tierrasanta. The two fires that had us the most worried were north of us along the 15 corridor in Rancho Peñasquitos and Rancho Bernardo. Both are under control. This time they didn’t come close enough to seriously threaten
This morning there is a demonstrably different feeling in the county than there was 24 hours ago. A few fires are still burning, but firefighters seem to have them under control. The Santa Ana winds have crashed and aren’t expected to awaken for the rest of the week. But they haven’t died. They will return. When meteorologists and others report that the “Santa Ana winds have died,” it’s a misnomer. They never die, they just take naps; they could reawaken and wreak more havoc at pretty much any time. It’s going to be very hot today, and dry, and a red flag alert for high fire danger remains in effect through 10 p.m. tonight. But without the high winds there doesn’t seem to be as much threat of any fires spreading.
Feeling no small sense of relief, but knowing that the fire danger could return with the single flick of an ash or strong gust of wind, I’m taking pause this morning to reflect, again, on living in the outer easterly ‘burbs where these fire dangers just keep increasing, year after year, and on just what it means to be a San Diego County resident.
It's only been a year since devastating wildfires swept through our county and destroyed more than 2,200 homes. It feels like yesterday. I’ve lived in San Diego County 25 years and still consider this the best place in the world to live, work, play and raise a family. But each time another fire threatens, the balance between the things I love about this place and things I don’t shift ever so slightly toward the latter category.
Perhaps it can best be explained by my changing attitude toward the Santa Ana winds themselves. When I moved to San Diego back in 1984, I was immediately seduced by this thing called the ‘Santa Ana winds’. I mean, how cool is that, I thought to myself the first time I heard about this So-Cal phenomenon. I called them the “Santana” winds, after the rock & roll guitarist Carlos Santana. There was nothing cooler to me than warm winds whipping through the trees at a time of year when, back home in my native Iowa, people were already donning parkas.
The shift in my attitude toward these winds changed for good in 2003 when I was awakened by a surreal, pumpkin-orange glow piercing our bedroom sliding glass door. As I wrote in Newsweek at the time, when I pulled back the curtain and opened the door I was overcome by smoke and ash from the back yard, so I closed the door and turned on the television news. According to the news anchor a raging wildfire that started in Ramona had traveled many miles westward because of the high Santa Anas and was now pushing its way through San Diego's northeastern suburbs. In other words, the winds I so loved were pushing this monster fire right toward us.
When an orange and black cloud darkened the sky directly behind and we felt a sudden and intense increase in heat, I knew it was time to get out of there. The car was already packed. At that same moment that the thick cloud appeared behind our home, a police car sped down our block blaring, "This is the San Diego Police Department! Leave now! Evacuate your homes immediately!" We didn’t need to be convinced.
As I hurriedly carried my daughter Mandy, who was three at the time, to the car, our neighbors walked out of their garage as they were packing up, waved reassuringly to us and smiled. I smiled back. Their reassuring waves and our plan to stay together helped us to make it through the next 48 hours. My wife Gabriela and I wiped a tear from each other's eyes and got in our cars. She followed me closely as we drove away from our house, both of us thinking we'd never see it or its contents again. There were enormous flames sweeping down the canyon near our house when we left.
We were very, very lucky. When we returned two days later our house was still standing. My family has in fact dodged two deadly bullets – that 2003 Cedar Fire and last year’s devastating Witch Creek Fire. I covered both for Newsweek, my primary employer for the last 15 years, with first-person takes written more from the perspective of a homeowner being chased by the fires than an objective journalist. And my reporting was a little different last year than it was for the Cedar Fire. My attitude had changed, if only a bit.
Before, during and after the Cedar Fire I was resolute, almost defiant, in my insistence that I’d never leave this place even if Mother Nature burned my house to the ground. I’d just build another one. That was my take. For the longest time. But when the fires came calling again last year, my wife and I just shook our heads and asked ourselves, and each other, how much more of this are we going to take? For the first time, I've actually begun to question my decision to live in this place I've so often called paradise.
But, of course, we’re still here. And this morning we are semi-back to normal as the “Santanas” have diminished for the time being. I still don’t think we could ever leave San Diego County unless we were forced to. And a big reason is that these horrible fires really bring out the community spirit, and that convinces us that this is the only place we want to live. These fires, which bring us a little closer together to fight a common opponent, would bring Sarah Palin and Joe Biden together. They typically just make us better people because we’re forced to take care not only of ourselves and our loved ones but those around us.
I’ve said this before, but during these wildfires compassion, which is often lamentably dormant in good folks as they just get too busy with their workaday world, rises to the surface. There really is nothing saintly or profound or unique about compassion, it's just one of hundreds of human emotions. But it is arguably the most essential tool for our common survival.
Since I moved to the San Diego area 25 years ago, this county has repeatedly demonstrated a remarkable goodness during these times. Wildfires be damned. Santana winds, be damned. This is home, and hopefully always will be. Well, at least that’s how I feel this morning. Talk to me again when the “Santanas” wake up again, and I may tell you a different story.
Jamie Reno is the San Diego correspondent for Newsweek.