By E.A. Barrera
November 27, 2013 (San Diego) – Even now, ten years since the flames have died and the air has cleared, the sight of it all still seems unreal - the earth outside my door in smolders and flames. Waking up that Sunday morning to the sounds of Santa Ana winds and an unpleasant sky, the Great Fires of 2003 were still a world away. They were still off in some remote back-country. Dreadful to consider - but none the less esoteric, and lacking any influence upon my Sunday morning routine.
That was my history with fire. Like most people in San Diego before October 26, the yearly fires were for me just another part of life in Southern California. Natural disasters happened here all the time. As a culture, we’d grown used to them the way Southerners grow used to giant bugs swarming the air during hot, humid summer nights. I once felt an earthquake for more than the split second they normally last (this one lasted five seconds). During the El Nino winter of 1998, we lost an 80-foot pine tree at the home I grew up in. It landed on the roof of our neighbors. Only a few rooftop shingles and a piece of the fence that broke the tree’s fall suffered any harm, though the neighbors rarely spoke to us in the years following.
But that was it. That was the extent of my experiences with events larger than human control. Like earthquakes or heavy rains, rarely had any blaze had an effect on me past the hint of smoke in the air; or if exceedingly bad, the occasional flake of ash on my truck’s windshield. When my family moved from Point Loma to Lakeside in the winter of 1972, our brand new home in our brand new neighborhood was built on undeveloped hillside. We were the first family on our street. The homes on many of the other streets had yet to be built. During the Crest/Laguna fires the year before, the land our home was sitting on had been swallowed by flames. By the time we moved in however, the hills were mostly green and restored from the fires of 1971 (though occasionally you could still see a charred bush, or a blackened boulder).
Our mailing address was always El Cajon, but we were not part of the city and thus not able to vote in El Cajon municipal elections. Our home was part of the Lakeside Planning Group area, though the closest marker of what our spot was labeled was the little Johnstown Baptist Church down the road from our house (and right next door to the best known landmark of the neighborhood - Marshall Scotty’s Play Land Park). The closest grocery market was the old Flinn Springs store on Olde Highway 80; while my new school was called Rios Canyon Elementary. I grew up in that twilight zone of neighborhood names and lived out the American stereotype of life in a small town. Every year we would trick-or-treat before the Halloween carnival at Marshall Scotty’s. The kids would all play touch football in the street before Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone would put up Christmas lights and a Christmas tree. Every year someone had a neighborhood Super Bowl party. Summer vacations were three months long, and my friends and I would spend most of them in the hills surrounding our homes. Those rolling hills were our giant playground, and we came to know every square inch of them - the way a kid growing up near the beach learns the water; or a kid growing up in the city learns the streets. They were the homes of our forts; our battlegrounds; our secret meetings. They were where we went to escape when the adults in our world made life difficult or occasionally mean. They were our second home.
Eventually we’d grow out of the need for such a playground. And by the time we’d entered our teens and set aside such things as running through the hills, the hills were transformed to a new use. A rancher bought up 600 acres of our hillside and turned it into an avocado orchard. From then on the hills were closed to the people in the neighborhood - though a few would occasionally take a hike through the groves, stealing a couple of avocados (or ten). All this and more ran through my mind as I saw the first line of bright orange flame cutting a swath near my old elementary school and making its way towards my neighborhood. Though I’d lived in different parts of this county over the years, there was only one place I considered home. Thirty years after my family had pioneered our neighborhood, I saw flames moving towards us - threatening to destroy the memories and work of three decades and hundreds of families.
For most of that day the sky had been ugly. But it wasn’t until mid-morning that any of us got a hint of just how bad and expansive this fire was to become to the county of San Diego. Places like Ramona, northern Lakeside, and Scripps Ranch had been suffering since late the night before. But when television news reported that the fire had moved south to Alpine and was now burning Harbison Canyon, my nerves began to awaken. When it was reported that the fire had reached the eastern ends of Flinn Springs, I started thinking about the possibility of evacuation. When I saw the flames moving above Rios Canyon and towards our home - even though high upon the hills and at least three miles away at that point, I started packing.
The old saying is that catastrophes bring out the best and worst in people. All I ever witnessed was the best. People were scared in my neighborhood and most got out long before we were ever told to do so. But neighbors who had not spoken to each other in years or decades (out of sheer lack of connection) immediately joined together. Friends loaded cars and motor homes for each other. Neighbors got on top of their rooftops and watered their homes and trees - and their neighbors’ homes and trees. People talked to one another - comforted one another. It was the one good thing to come out of the day. But as the flames progressed and the neighborhood emptied, the fears of what was coming started to cling. All day long I’d seen television reports of people evacuating their homes - and those homes burning to the ground. The smoky sky was countywide - the whole region, including my neighborhood was cloaked in an eerie sepia light, the likes of which I‘d never seen before.
You could see on television people nestled together at San Diego Stadium … burnt-out from the day’s stress and the anxiety of what lay ahead. The fire began to crest the tops of the hills surrounding our neighborhood around 5:00pm. The red-orange streams of flame that I’d only seen on television were now right in front of me. But it still didn’t seem to be possible - that I might be one of those taking refuge in the parking lot of the stadium. That I might be one of those who others saw on television and sadly shook their heads - all the while thanking providence that they were not me. As night fell, the neighborhood took on a ghostly quality. Gone was any sign of life - but for the flames from the fire in the hills. Those flames were about a mile away now and awesome in their ferocity. But because they were so high on top of the hillside and still circling the outer edges of the avocado orchards, I knew had time. I’d loaded my truck - mostly with photo albums, boxes of cards and papers from my family’s past. I’d also packed some furniture, clothing and a few books.
Finally the awful moment I'd been dreading came true. An El Cajon police car slowly made its way down the street, giving us the official order that it was time to evacuate. Fire trucks and emergency sedans began driving down our street. The fires had not moved in the half hour preceding the order, but the flames seemed bigger than ever. But the emergency vehicles cruising down our street only lasted a few minutes. Then all was silent. It was the most bizarre combination of urgency and stillness I’d ever felt. Water and electric power were still available, though the streets outside were now like dark rooms with no life - again, save for the glowing light from the flames now coming closer. I drove away in that darkness. I felt like I was the last one to leave and there was a brief moment of symmetry to that thought. My family had been the first ones to move into this neighborhood and we would be the last ones to leave. We’d opened the door to the life of this neighborhood, and now it felt like I was closing that door.
But that feeling only lasted until I saw some men talking to each other on the driveway of one of the homes a couple of streets up from ours. I decided to drive down the road that edged the hillside as far as I could. I wanted to get another, closer glimpse of the fire. At the top of the street closest to the hills, another group of men were standing around. When they saw my vehicle, they waved me over. They asked me who I was and what I was doing. I told them where I lived and that I was just getting one last look before leaving. I asked them who they were. They were cops. Cops who lived in the neighborhood. They were ignoring the order to evacuate as long as the flames were still up in the hills. They were staying and patrolling the neighborhood as long as possible so as to ward off looters. In that instant, I knew I would be staying too.
I turned my truck around and headed home. I parked in my driveway; opened the front door; turned on the television and grabbed a baseball bat out of the closet. I would be staying. Unless the damn fire started moving up my street, there was no way in hell I was going to abandon this place so that some scumbag of a looter could rummage through our home - stealing and soiling the pieces of my family’s life. It was peaceful now. That eerie quiet still existed, and the sense of foreboding as I watched the flames ravage our hillside still lingered. But the confusion of knowing what to do was gone.
I poured myself a short scotch, grabbed my baseball bat, and walked up to the top of our street to get a better look. There I saw one of my neighbors - another cop. He too had stayed to patrol the place. We talked briefly, and then I went back to my house. I’d never realized how many cops lived in my old haunt. I turned on the front yard garden hose and threw it on top of the roof, making it ready in case I needed to get on top to battle sparks of flame.
I went out back to do the same with the backyard hose when I saw another of my neighbors - on their roof spraying water from a garden hose in the pitch dark, with only a large flashlight to guide them.
“Are you staying!!?” He shouted from his rooftop over my backyard fence. I told him I was. “Me too!! We’re gonna beat this thing, man!”
He said that to me holding the spraying hose and standing guard on top of his roof like a knight guarding his castle.
I never slept during that first night and barely dozed the next day. But my home was still standing when it was all over. My neighborhood survived. The fires of 2003 swept across this county from the northern tip near Camp Pendleton to the southern end of Otay Lakes. More than half a million acres burned - three times the size of the Crest/Laguna fires of ‘71. It was the biggest fire in recorded California history. The winds that fanned the flames of the fire from Ramona down to within a half-mile of my home in less than a day, moved those flames through neighborhoods and farms, killing two dozen people, burning more than 3,000 homes, and sending almost an entire county’s worth of people into panic and disarray. An organized terrorist attack upon the people of San Diego could not have been more damaging. In fact the sense that this was similar to the feelings we all had after the attacks of September 11th was palpable. This tremendous, horrible fire sent a shock wave through our system that would leave a permanent scar.
But San Diego survived the Great Fires of 2003, showing a character and fortitude that was a sight to behold. People looked out for one another. They pitched in for one another. They turned a disaster into a battle and they emerged burned and scathed, but victorious none-the-less. My neighborhood escaped the flames that came so close. Whether it was the work of the firefighters; the existence of the avocado orchard; the changing direction of the winds; or the divine hand of providence protecting this one small corner of the world from harm is unclear. No doubt all four conditions were at work that Sunday and Monday morning.
A decade has passed since that night. I did not suffer any tragic loss, so there isn’t much in the way of a moral conclusion or contemplation of life that I can offer here. I was one of the lucky ones. Me and my neighbors were part of the lucky citizens of this county who could stand on their properties after the fires had passed; consider what might have been; and breathe easy that we were never serious casualties of the battles engaged. But the image and simple words of my neighbor on that creepy, awful night - when nothing was certain, and all questions and memories arose - will stay with me … hopefully for the rest of my life. The Great fires of 2003 will leave their blackened, charred mark on all who got scorched - living monuments to a world turned sepia for a few scary moments. But they'll always leave something else - a sense of community, a sense of bravery, and ultimately the feeling that we overcame and survived.
“We’re gonna beat this thing, man!!”
And so we did.
The opinions in this editorial reflect the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of East County Magazine. To submit an editorial for consideration, contact email@example.com.