Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Fire in San Diego

We are safe. Thank you so much for your concern. We've been very fortunate. And the worst of it seems to be over. At least, the fires aren't spreading as rapidly. We live in an area close to the coast that is just far enough away to be out of danger.

On Sunday morning, we went to the coast for our weekly long run. I had decided to bail on the run because my foot has been bothering me (more on that later) so I've been trying to rest it and let it heal before the big race on Sunday. I was planning on swimming but it was high tide, and the waves were enormous. An omen? Jason and my friends convinced me not to go in. I reluctantly agreed. After breakfast, as if on cue, the Santa Ana winds the meteorologists had been predicting picked up. Hot, dry, arid winds gusted from the desert as far west as the ocean. Definitely a bad omen.

Arriving home in the afternoon, we saw the news about the Harris Fire, which had been burning since 9:30 that morning. A new fire, the Witch Creek Fire, had just started. We get wildfires at this time of year normally; they usually are far away in very rural areas and don't affect us. I wasn't concerned. I laid down to take a nap.

When we woke up, I sniffed groggily. Ugh. Something smelled bad. Like burnt ash. Was someone BBQing? Didn't they know they weren't supposed to BBQ in Santa Ana conditions because of the red flag fire danger? We closed the windows and turned the air on. When we turned the news on again, I couldn't believe how quickly the fires were spreading. The winds on the coast were gusting up to 30 mph, which means that in the desert, they were much worse. Reports said the winds out east were up to 80 mph, reaching hurricane-like conditions. Some firefighters had been injured due to the horizontal flames.

We didn't see the sun set that night because a thick cloud of ash and smoke had settled around our apartment. Everything was gray and hazy. The air was unbelievably hot--in the 90s--partly due to the Santa Anas, and partly due to the fires. The wind was so strong branches were being snapped off trees. We finally turned the news off at midnight and tried to sleep. Large branches on the tree outside scraped against our window with the force of the desert wind, rasping against the glass like fingernails against a chalkboard and sending shivers down my spine. I don't know if it was a nightmare about the fire or the wailing sound of the tree branch that woke me up but I was jarred awake at 2:00 am.

Jason, who had been unable to sleep, was in the living room glued to the tv. He said they had evacuated Ramona and Poway and that the fire was entering San Diego in the Rancho Bernardo area. I couldn't believe it. I bike in that area all the time. I just did the Tour de Poway a few short weeks ago. Not only that, but after consulting a map, we could see the fire had spread 40 miles west, over halfway to the coast, in less than 1 day. With no hope of the winds dying down for at least another 24 hours, the firefighters simply couldn't get the air support in to battle the flames. We began discussing an evacuation plan.

When I woke up, I knew I wouldn't see the sun that day. It felt like we had entered Dante's 5th ring. The sky was dark gray and hazy, creating a thick, muffled atmosphere. Ash fell out of the sky like snow. I heard that the fire had crossed I-15 in some places, and they had evacuated Rancho Santa Fe. Our places of work were closed, the mayor asked us all to stay home and shortly thereafter, the governor issued a state of emergency. I watched a fireman on the news explain how there was very little they could do except to evacuate people until the winds died down. There were some news predictions that the fire might reach the coast. Since I-15 and I-8 was closed, the only main artery still open to get out of San Diego was I-5. There was fire south of us all the way to the border. There was fire east of us. West was the ocean. And there was fire northeast of us moving west. I felt trapped. We decided to play it safe, pack up, and voluntarily evacuate.

Since we were being conservative, I tried to pretend it was a little get-away vacation. However, I was charged with adrenaline. It felt good to take action, rather than sit around, waiting for the fire to come. I packed an overnight bag with toiletries, a bunny bag, a bag full of important documents (tax returns, passports, birth certificates, photo albums, diaries, etc.), and my transition bag with all my race gear. We loaded up the car, stuffed to the gills and drove north with the bunnies in the back seat, and Torch, my tri bike, strapped to the bike rack on the trunk.

Avoiding the congestion on I-5, we stayed on Pacific Coast Highway. I had believed the smoke and ash had been bad near our apartment. I was wrong. As we entered Del Mar and Solana Beach, the air became thick and black ash, embers, and smoke. Even with the windows closed, it was hard to breathe and my eyes watered. Many people were wearing goggles and masks, especially if they were outside. The ocean was slick, glassy and brown, poisoned by the smokey haze. We had entered another universe. Maybe we had stepped into Mordor from Lord of the Rings. We were surrounded by trailers full of livestock--horses, cows, llamas, goats. I was disgusted at the sight of a guy trying to pawn air filters for $10 a pop on the side of the road. Way to take advantage of other people's nightmares for your own personal gain, buddy. We got on the 5 in Carlsbad and had a pretty easy commute north to San Clemente, just north of the Camp Pendleton Marine Base. The sky was blue and clear, and I could see the sun. I felt safe.

traffic on I-5 headed into Orange County to escape the fires

We checked into our hotel, exhausted. A 50 minute drive had just taken us 3 hours. Luckily, we had reserved our room that morning. The hotel (and all those around) had no vacancies, much to the dismay of the other evacuees lining up in the office. Unfortunately, there was more fire to worry about. There were fires in Orange County, Riverside County, and Los Angeles County. We still couldn't really drive north or east without hitting more flames. If we had to move again, our only option would be to catch a ferry to Catalina Island and lay low there for a few days. Luckily, the winds weren't as strong up north, and the firefighters were having a much better time getting the fires under control. I slept fitfully and woke up with a stiff neck from sleeping on a cheap hotel bed but was relieved to see that the fires hadn't spread towards the hotel during the night. On the other hand, I hated not being able to get much info on the fires in San Diego. I felt so cut off. We met several other evacuees at the hotel, also accompanied by their pets and exchanged tired smiles.

Once we were able to receive news of the fires in San Diego, by Tuesday night, we felt it was safe enough to return home. The winds have died down and the firefighters are able to more effectively fight the fires. They are still only 5-10% contained but they aren't spreading as rapidly, and we are not in immediate danger, nor are we in a projected path of any of the fires. Jason looked at me as we were driving home and asked, "What do you think it will look like when we get home." I just shuddered.

Currently, over 500,000 people have been evacuated, and 200,000 acres have burned, destroying over 1,000 homes in its path. Luckily, due to the excellent organizational skills of city and government officials, almost everyone has been able to evacuate in a timely fashion so there have been few fatalities.

We have never been so happy to be home, the bunnies included. We're tired but eager to try and get back into a normal routine. I can't believe how exhausted I am! The air is still hazy and smokey, and it is not recommended to go outside. There is ash all over our balcony and also on Torch from riding on the back of the car but that can all be cleaned up. I know this catastrophe is far from over but at least, we get to sleep in our own bed tonight. I think I will sleep tonight.

Below are some images of the Witch Creek Fire:

satellite image of smoke blowing west into the Pacific from all the SoCal fires

Before I collapse, I just wanted to share what I've learned from this experience and go over evacuation procedures for everyone so that when the unexpected comes, you have a plan:

Emergency plan:
1. Before an emergency happens, have a plan. Have a detailed plan. Go over it with your family. Where will you go? What will you bring? How will you get there? Are there steps you need to take now, before an emergency comes (having certain things packed and ready to go, storing batteries, flashlights, radios, blankets water, non-perishable food, and first aid kit in a handy place).
2. As soon as you have notice that you may need to evacuate, pack. Pack way in advance.
3. When in doubt, evacuate. It is much better to leave when you can than realize, too late, you're trapped. Get as much information as you can and take maps and a radio with you so you're evacuation route is safe. If you plan on staying in a hotel, reserve a room early. They will fill up.
4. Keep in touch with the news and follow instructions. Don't go home until you know it is safe.
5. The most important thing is to stay calm and think rationally.

What to bring:
1. overnight bag with clothes and toiletries
2. pets in carriers along with their food, bowls for water, medication, and other provisions for housing
3. important documents (already in a folder, ready to be packed) including, passports, birth certificates, car titles, insurance papers, etc.
4. things that can't be replaced (photo albums, home videos, diaries, external hard drive)
5. other expensive or hard to replace items that are easily packed (fine jewelry (or a tri bike?), for instance)
6. important medications
7. if you have time, a few small items that you could do without but will make you feel more comfortable (I brought my iPod, a Harry Potter book, and my camera)

all photos courtesy of the San Diego Union Tribune


bunnygirl said...

I'm glad you, Jason and the buns are okay. I was especially worried about the bunnies because of the smoke, which probably has a hefty share of toxins in it from plastic and other home-stuff.

Add the stress of it all and I'm sure they're very happy to be home. Tidbit sends best wishes, binkies and nose kisses!

Jodi said...

WOW, So glad that you are ok!


jessie said...

Thinking about you in blogland. Good to hear you and the family are OK!

Sara said...

I'm so happy to hear you are okay. What a crazy thing to deal with! You and Jason were really smart to evacuate voluntarily - it gives you so much more control over your situation! And thank you for the tips!

Chad in the Arizona Desert said...

I'm so glad to hear that you and your family are ok. We get a lot of fires over here as well, but we have never had our home threatened or had to evacuate (one of the perks of living in the desert, I guess). I hope everything turns out well for you and be sure to thank the brave firefighters over there for us.

Beth said...

wow- it's been a long few days for you guys..playing it safe is always a good idea. good luck with the race this weekend!

Britney said...

i am so glad to hear you are safe and i hope the fires get fully contained quickly!

Shawn said...

Glad you guys are safe. Thanks for the Evac tips.

Erika said...

I'm glad to hear that you (and the bunnies) are okay. I kept thinking about you especially when the news would come on. Scarey.

Paul said...

Hey Rachel,

glad to see you and Jason are safe too. Good luck this weekend! Hopefully I'll see you there. It's been a no fun week with a forced taper.

Coach Tammy said...

So glad you are OK! As you know, I have family in Escondido. They have been very lucky to be spared.

When things settle a bit, please let us know if the tri community needs anything down that way. I'm sure many lost a lot, but hopefully they were all as smart as you and packed their gear and got outta Dodge! What a nightmare. Take care. Big hugs.