FIRESTORM 2007

 

On October 22nd, 2007, our neighborhood was hit by the most damaging wild fire in California history.

 

6,800 Firemen.

 1,050 Fire Engines.

32 aircraft - many of which were grounded by weather and politics.

13% of San Diego County would burn. 

 

 

3,000,000 acres would be reduced to ash.

Well in excess of 1,600 homes would be lost.

Over 1,000,000 Residents would be evacuated...

Including our neighborhood.

 

A handful of us would decide not leave. 

Derrick, Bill, Zack (not shown) and I would respectfully disregard the orders to leave. 

Terry & Andrew would also join us on Monday afternoon.

 

In the early hours of October 22nd, I was unable to sleep as the winds howled along our house.  The trees scraped loudly against the gutter, until it finally fell from the side of the house.  Patio furniture crashed as the wind threw it around.  I laid in bed thinking about the mess I would have to clean up in the morning, while watching the television in hope that once again I might fall asleep.  It was shortly after 3:00AM, when I noticed lights drive into my front yard. 

So began October 22nd.

The man in my driveway had awaken to discover his yard was ablaze and he chose to drive into my front yard to compose himself before leaving for safety. He mistakenly believed I had small children and wanted to insure we had ample time to escape.  In reality, I was home alone.  After a brief conversation, I would wake Bill Bland across the street and together we began to go around and wake the other neighbors. 

As I pounded on the front door of the first home and yelled, I could see my disoriented neighbor cautiously head toward the door. He was unaware that as I looked past him and yelled,  I could see through the home and out his back window.  His canyon was ablaze.

At 3:45 AM The first strike team of five San Diego Fire Department Engines were busy cutting their way past a fallen tree, blocking their entry into our community.  They had received their orders to enter and defend Highlands Ranch.   Once through the gates, it would be Engine 14 and Engine 28 of the five companies which would stand between the fires and our block at the North end of Highlands Ranch Road. 

Oct. 22, Rancho Bernardo: Firefighters battle a fire at a house off Valle Verde Rd in Rancho Bernardo.

By 4:30 AM, the neighborhood was buzzing as residents headed for safe ground.

By 5:00AM, 60+ mile per hour Santa Ana winds drove a 100' wall of fire across the canyons that would soon over take the Northeast ridge of our Highlands Ranch neighborhood.  Orange streaks of burning debris and the heavy stench of ash filled the pre-dawn sky.

The once Western winds would shift to the South, then as the flames raced up the canyon walls, the winds suddenly become a hurricane of fire swirling in all directions.  We would soon be in the eye of the Fire Storm.  Twenty miles to the West, evacuations had already begun.  There was no stopping this fire.

The strike teams quickly pulled back as the extremely fast moving fire effortlessly over took the ridge and burned over their initial tactical positions.  With Firemen retreating,  unable to see, unable to breath and questioning whether there remained a safe retreat from our neighborhood, Bill and I momentarily questioned our sanity.   As the fire trucks pulled back and a wave of fire over took the ridge,  I made a call to Kentucky, to tell my wife we had just lost our home.  This would be where my cell phone and I parted company - never again to be reunited. With the wind swirling 60 mph, and fire everywhere this was as bad as wild fire gets,  and it was certainly the wrong place to stop to look for a dropped phone! 

A couple hundred feet away,  the strike team would return to bravely make their stand.

         

 

By 6:00AM, three homes including all of their contents would be reduced to smoldering ashes. Unfortunately, each of the three homeowners would be away from home and thus, not a single treasured possession would be removed.  In a matter of an hour...it was all gone.

 

 

 

A fourth home would also fall shortly thereafter...

 

 

As those burning structures collapsed upon themselves, the winds rained showers of embers down from the skies.  By 8:00AM, the ember showers had the rear yard and both side yards of our home in flames, but surprisingly they had not yet taken hold of our house.

 

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Across the street, the once picturesque palms now stood  in flames like giant Tiki- torches.  

Dead birds rained from the sky as the heat and smoke overwhelmed their attempt to escape.  As they dropped beside me, it was surreal.  There was a deep emptiness. This was a nightmare, our community had become a hurricane of fire, smoke, broken dreams, burning debris and enormous devastation.

 

At 8:00AM, a transformer in front of our home exploded in flames and ignited the front yard.  As luck would have it, a passing friend Dave would knock the fire down, despite the orders of the firemen telling at him to leave.  He would be among the many to save our home this day.

 

 

Away from the house, unaware Dave's heroics, at that very same moment I was on the telephone with a friend in Hawaii:

"Mari, I am so very sorry to be the one to tell you that your home is gone..."

Sometime around 9:00, after the initial wave of fire had momentarily subsided, word of looting shifted our focus to protection of personal property rather than real estate.  While patrolling the neighborhood we found and began to secure several kicked in doors, fires erupted from virtually everything that had a potential to burn.  Pool equipment, front door mats, side yards, decks, patio furniture and landscape were ablaze. Gas flared 20' in the air from broken gas mains. Even the now abandoned fire hoses were on fire. 

   

We would soon be joined by Terry and Andrew.  The now six of us would spend the next several hours knocking down these incidental fires with garden hoses as the fire trucks had by now all moved on.  Fortunately, our homes were in the City of Poway which had abundant water pressure, 50 feet behind our home lies Rancho Bernardo, a suburb of the City of San Diego.  When we tried to fight fires burning in the yards of the homes in the City of San Diego, nothing came out of the hose bibs.  There was no water pressure at all.  We would resort to pulling hoses from our yards, or shooting water from the swimming pools to attempt to save only those homes we could reach.

During the noon hour,  a second wave of fire would enter the neighborhood. 

    

Despite the efforts of the firemen, 4 additional homes would fall, 1 within our gates and 3 adjacent to our homes in the Rancho Bernard Trails.

As the morning turned to afternoon, there would be repeated fiery assaults on each and every side of one cul-de-sac home.  It would be Zack, a 14 year old neighbor boy, with a gasoline engine powered Pacer water pump, sucking water from a swimming pool and blasting it through a 50' fire hose, with a plastic nozzle and a man-sized heart who would stand between the flames of several of the burning structures and that lone remaining home.

That home survived, in part due to the fact that on noon of October 22nd, that 14 year old boy became a man and that young man was not willing to let another neighbor's house burn.

 

Just as we began to feel the risk had passed, at 5:00PM, fires would break out at the Northeast end of the neighborhood and would quickly be put down by the homeowners.  Again around 9:00 PM a few homes away, the scenario repeated itself.  Finally, the fire would get the best of the under equipped residents and would quickly get out of hand around midnight.  Andrew would leave the neighborhood and hail a fireman a few blocks away, the fire trucks would return and knock down the flames without further loss.

By Tuesday morning, dozens of Fire Fighters from the Fire Departments of Ventura County, National City, City of Poway, City of Los Angeles, as well as an FBI Agent, five homeowners and two teenaged boys would all join the effort of the five San Diego Fire Engines to defend our streets.  

Before it was over, fires would be extinguished in half of the yards of the remaining Highlands Ranch homes and several adjacent homes in the Trails by the neighbors who stayed behind on Monday alone.

In total, 80 homes behind us in the Trails would burn on that first day.

 

A half dozen more would burn in the Old Winery area, on Joyas, Cielo and Valle Verde, South and East of us.

 

Another 18 homes would also burn around the Maderas Golf Course in the Heritage. 

A fly over of  the area would show many more lost around Stone Ridge Country Club.

 

Tuesday would be spent mopping up hot spots.  San Diego strike team engines would return to assure the winds would not reignite the burned remains of the lost homes.  Though the fire continued to rage to the West and South, San Diego and Poway Fire had decided it had burned far enough in Rancho Bernardo & Poway and they would not allow it to cross Espola Rd and continue to spread out from our area.  It was a relief to have them return as it gave us an opportunity to drop our guard.

Though to us it only seemed like a single long day from the first fires to the last flare up in Dr. Majunder's backyard,  in actuality, we had continue to put out fires through the late afternoon on Wednesday, some 60 hours after it all started.

As the smoke began to clear, the devastation became more apparent.

 

 

From our homes, where a few days earlier we stood and watched more than three dozen houses as they were lost to the flames.  We could now see the blackened hills were scarred with the ashes of what but hours ago had been homes.

Of the 38 homes within our gates when the fires broke out Monday morning, only 33 would survive the next seven hours. Despite dozens of additional fires over the next 60 hours, we would not lose a single home after noon the first day.

Each of the 5 homes that fell in Highlands Ranch were no more than a couple hundred yards away from our home.  There were 3 more behind our home, in the City of San Diego - which did not have water pressure in their hose bibs when we tried to help.

Smoky, beat up and covered in ash, our home remained. Scorched carpet inside the house and a burned trellis would remind us just how close we came to losing it all, two cars inside the garage would be burned by flying embers, but did not develop into flames. Another in the driveway would have the upholstery burned when embers entered through an open vent.  Overall, we were extremely fortunate.

 

Over the next several days, we retreated with many neighbors to a local hotel.  Some made made plans to clean up, while others planed to tear down, one made plans to rebuild and one made plans to simply scrape away debris - pull up roots and move along in life.  Through all of the many painful memories of those few days after the fire, I could not help but to warmly reflect upon the many happy times we all had once shared.  At that moment, I realized the fire would take away many "things", but it could not take away our friends or our memories of the times we had spent with them.

 

 

I wish to express my most sincere appreciation to the fire fighters of the San Diego, Ventura, Los Angeles, National City and Poway Fire Departments all of which defended our homes on Highlands Ranch Road. In particular I thank Engines 14 and 28 who stood their ground in front of our home during the most dangerous periods of threat. Certainly, many of these guys had homes of their own in harm's way while they stood and protected ours.

I appreciate and will never forget the resourcefulness and courage of our neighbors: Bill Bland, Dave Defusco, Derrick Cohen, Zack Cohen, Terry Mammon and Andrew Mammon each of whom played a key role in saving many, if not all, of the homes which remain in Highlands Ranch - including my own.

My thoughts and prayers are with our friends and neighbors whose homes were lost, and I will celebrate the holidays reverent and mindful that despite the tremendous loss, each of us are safe. 

I look forward to the day our neighbors once again come home, and I extend our best wishes to those who have chosen to not return. - JG

 

UPDATE:

In a twist of fate...Willie, a fire fighter on duty that Monday morning,  would enter our neighborhood so he could share his experience with Sherry his wife and survey the damage we had suffered.  During his tour of the neighborhood, Willie would meet Debbie Ness and discover it was his Engine that protected the Ness family home.

As a result of this chance encounter, on December 2nd, Willie and Debbie would arrange to bring together the neighbors and those who protected their homes for a BBQ.

 

Members from each of the five San Diego Engine Companies that formed the Strike Team, and the City of Poway Fire Station would join us, as we tried to express our appreciation to each of them for their hard work.

We would learn it was Sean and his Engine that made the stand in front of our home.  We would learn how his wife, Meg, would receive the unsettling midnight call no fire fighter's wife wants to receive, advising her that Sean was on the Strike Team headed to stand in the path of the fire and going well into harms way.   For the many days while we worried about losing our possessions, Meg would remain at home with her new son worried about the safety of her husband and 5 month old Liam's dad.

 

 

The Buckley's would also meet the man that kicked in their door to save their home and then drank the Cokes from his poolside refrigerator.  He would tell him, "That was the best Coke I ever drank!"  Bill would share his experience with the Poway Fire Captain.

There were a number of apologies, sorry about your kicked in door...sorry about your sprinkler we ran over... and most often,  "sorry about the homes we lost".  We would learn that sometimes the doors are kicked in to save a home, and sometimes they are kicked in to save a fire fighter when the fire over runs them - we had both.  It made me sorry I haven't said thank you more frequently to these guys who care so very much for the people and property of those they so rarely meet.

 

 Christmas would come early for these heroes, as we sent them home with baskets full of goodies to wine and dine the holidays in Highlands Ranch style.  It was a small gesture of great appreciation.

 

For the firemen, it was a reminder of why they fought so hard...

The Captain explained, "Putting a face on the homes we defend is very special to us"

I couldn't help thinking, "Putting a face on those who defended us was every bit as important"

 

 

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