I’ve never been a refugee before. Or an evacuee, at least. Two weeks after our move to idyllic San Diego, we came home from Church smelling smoke. Undeterred, we packed the children up in the car for our customary walk along La Jolla Cove. The water was pounding unusually high on the cliffs. The smoke in the air hung down heavier here, and things kept getting in my eyes. I naively wished that the wind would blow it all away. There must be some brush fire in a canyon, and what a pity for it to ruin such a beautiful San Diego evening.
We returned home and went to bed, after closing a window we’d left inadvertently open and leaving the bathroom fan on for a few hours to suck out the smoke. In the morning, I got up and tried to do yoga in our almost-moved-in living room, but realized that deep breathing was not an intelligent thing to do with the air so smoky. Tony went over to the fitness center to lift weights, and watched the morning news, as usual. Only today, unlike usual, national news was fixated on or lovely little town. The hills around us were burning, and so were the communities. A fire had raged through Ramona Sunday afternoon, and then blown into Rancho Bernardo in the morning. People had received reverse 911 calls at 4:30 in the morning, warning them to evacuate immediately. The fire was only 15 minutes behind. There was fire east of Chula Vista, and more up by Fallbrook.
Tony immediately got dressed and filled up our empty car with gas. There was already a long line at the gas station by the time we got home. By the time we turned on our radio after breakfast to listen to updates, every local station was playing the same coverage of the fires. Rancho Bernardo and Carmel Valley, where we lived previously, were evacuated from 5 to 15, and all the way down to 56, a few exits above us. Just down the road, everything to Miramar Base was also under mandatory evacuation. The fire was coming down through Fallbrook, and people were being escorted through Camp Pendleton to Orange County Beaches. I shivered. I had a sudden mental image of the tall, art-deco Hyatt across the street from our apartment, engulfed in flames. Evacuees, we learned, were being sent to schools and community centers across San Diego, but the main center for evacuation had been established in Qualcomm Stadium. I cringed, remembering the reports of the mayhem inside the Astrodome after Hurricane Katrina. By the time they evacuated La Jolla, if it came to that, everyone else would have been evacuated already. We would be packed in with the rest of the stir-crazy people, breathing smoke and waiting for the rain.
My mind suddenly made itself up. We were not waiting for an evacuation order. We would flee the fire, preempt the panic, and escape San Diego County. However, when we sat down with the map, it became evident that all roads led us closer to danger before they led away. My parents’ house near Sacramento, our first choice of refuge, was quickly eliminated when we realized that I-5 would take us right through two of the first burning at the same time near Los Angeles. We considered next taking Highway 8 all the way out to Arizona, where my grandparents live. But the Otay Mesa fires were burning down there. We had been planning a business trip to Utah anyway, so we finally settled on that as the best option. The only problem was that the Witch fire, the most aggressive of them all, had closed Highway 15 from 56 to 78. We had heard on the radio that one lane was still open, so we pinned our hopes on that and spent the next hour gathering and packing for a trip, not just an evacuation.
At about 1:30 we got in the car and headed out Miramar Road to 15. There was no traffic. We were cruising until 15 was closed at 56. So we drove down 56, past our first neighborhood in Rancho Bernardo, past our second neighborhood in Carmel Valley past the places where we used to take our peaceful evening walk. The freeway was eerily empty. Some people had left their sprinklers running as they fled the fires. We got on I-5 with the rest of San Diego. As we passed Del Mar and approached the fairgrounds, the smoke got thicker. People in cars we passed were holding handkerchiefs in front of their faces to breathe. We considered how to get back to 15, which seemed the only way to actually escape the fires rather than just going to the safety of the beaches to breathe the smoke until the fires passed. We called the radio station, which told us that 78 was open, so we took 78 toward 15.
As we drove, the smoke began to clear. We saw blue sky ahead. We rolled down the car windows to let in the fresh, clean air. But we knew we had to go north before we could get to 15, since 78 takes a dive south before it connects, and eastern Escondido, where it hits 15, had already been evacuated. We exited at Vista Village Drive and made our way merrily upward, with smoke looming everywhere except in front of us. Like so many other times that day, we could see a patch of blue sky just ahead, but it proved elusive. Going the other way was a long line of cars, evacuated from Fallbrook, we supposed, and headed for 5 and the beaches by way of 78. At one point, police car after police car came flashing through on the yellow line, going our way, but much faster than our backed-up line. We were to find them at every turn, always keeping us from heading east toward the fire that lay between us and our goal, Highway 15.
We were kept north at Mission Road, rather than heading to the 15 exit, so we pressed on, hoping to get ahead of the fire. But by now we were getting dangerously close to evacuated Fallbrook. We saw a man towing his ATV, with his leather couch in the back of a pickup. Others were hauling parrots, vehicles, or horse trailers. The farmhouses had an empty look about them, and ash was beginning to fall ominously from the sky. Had we not been in possession of our Thomas Guide Map, we could never have known which of the dusty roads would lead us to safety, and which would leave us stranded in endless winding curves under the smoke of the advancing wildfire. We could see the smoke quite close now, and it was darker, a sign, the radio informed us, that it was the smoke of a fire actively burning, and not just charred earth. The last place I saw to get over to 15 on our map was Mission Road, which went out to Old Highway 395 and 15.
As we turned east again, our hopes rose, since the smoke seemed to now be all to the south of us. But as we neared the freeway, we saw again the flashing red lights and the policeman turning us back. They must have closed it scant minutes before we arrived, since there were only a few cars ahead of us. “De Luz,” the policeman shouted, as he waved us on, and we could only hope that he meant we would eventually make it to 15 on De Luz Road. We turned around, and soon found that traffic was at a virtual standstill going the other way. We inched through north Fallbrook with its residents, knowing that we were probably the only ones from distant La Jolla trying to escape by that particular route. We passed a gas station, with “no gas” signs on all the pumps.
Fortunately, most of the cars were still heading to the Orange County beaches by way of 5. As soon as we headed North on De Luz and then Sandia Creek Drive, there were only scattered cars. We wondered, in fact, if they were just all hoping to hide out in the hills above, or if that desolate, twisting road did in fact lead eventually back to the elusive Highway 15, which was beginning to feel like our holy grail. Our map of San Diego County had ended, but we had yet to truly escape. An un-uniformed volunteer, a good samaritan to whom we gave silent thanks, waved us on at a crossroads, and we began to see hand-lettered signs pointing the way to “Temecula and I-15.” We pressed on hopefully, and finally came out of the hills into the city. It was 7:00. A journey that usually took no more than 1 1/2 to 2 hours had taken us 5 1/2. But we felt so blessed to be there, breathing clean air, and safe, we thought, from the fires. After a few miles on the blessed 15 we reached the fork and took 215, since we saw a sign that 15 was closed at an exit we hadn’t heard of somewhere ahead. We made the same mistake we always make, and ended up driving east on 60 somehow. We were able to laugh about it though, and be grateful we had made no mistakes as we navigated ourselves painstakingly across the back roads of burning San Diego.
We filled up again, even though we were half full, remembering the empty gas station in Fallbrook. The winds were screaming around us, and when we went to the bathroom at Jack-in-the-Box, a group of firemen came in after us, after parking their firetruck in the parking lot. As we got back on I-215, we could see smoke hanging above us, light in the dark as it was dark in the day. On the hills to our right we began to see a glow. The freeway was getting very congested now, and we had slowed to a crawl. Our diminished speed gave us time to notice the soot and ash now blowing about us abundantly. The entire hillside was black–recently black, because it was still smoking. Then we started to see sparks on the side of the road, and glowing embers rolling about in the wind. Traffic slowed to a standstill. On the median beside us, we could see a small flame on a post, licking at a tinder-dry tree. We remembered the images we had seen of houses and cars burning, and it didn’t take much imagination to know what could happen to our car so easily if the wind were to change just a little. And what would we do? Get out of the car with the children and run? But to where, and how fast. These winds were 60-80 mph winds. Hurricane winds almost, but with no storm but the firestorm. A Los Angeles radio station informed us that in Lake Arrowhead, a small resort town in the hills just to our right, fifty houses had already burned. To our right, a sign informed us that 215 was closed two exits ahead, before it reconnected with 15. We decided to get off at the next exit and go south again on 215, rather than getting routed to 15 south, which I was sure would be a madhouse.
Our decision was confirmed and taken out of our hands, when the freeway closed at the very next exit. We looped around to go south, and were relieved to find that there was no traffic. Suddenly, up ahead we could see flames on the other side of the freeway and in the median. The little flame we had seen on the way up had multiplied a thousandfold. We screeched to a halt, along with the five or six cars in front of us in the right lane. The one car in the left lane meekly scooted backward from the towering flame. We saw firemen and cars, looking tiny against the blaze. Time seemed to stop as we sat trapped between freeway closures, watching them fight the fire, their movements insignificant against it, yet somehow little by little reducing its size. On our side of the freeway, we looked out of the window and saw embers smoldering on the ground, flaring ominously in the constant wind. This, we realized, is how a fire can jump a six-lane freeway–not as a towering wall of flame, but as a scattering of sparks and embers, thrown across by the wind.
After what seemed like an eternity, the fire was gone, first on the median, and then on the other side. We heaved a sigh of relief as we sped down the freeway again, albeit in the wrong direction. But after eight hours now of trying to go north on 15, we were not going to be deterred any more by the actual appearance of the fire than by its premonition. We headed east on Highway 10 toward Palm Springs to spend the night and then make our way around the fiery mountains. At 6:30 am after five hours of sleep, we turned on the television to find that 640 homes had been burned and 350,000 people evacuated in San Diego. Despite our difficulties, all we could think was how grateful we were to be here and not there. We headed off on 62 north toward Barstow. The sky was clear, and no fire truck was in sight. We were heading for a little road called 247 that winds to the east of Los Angeles, eventually connecting Palm Springs and Twenty-Nine Palms back to 15. No fires raged in that direction, and we knew we could finally make it to our wandering mecca of I-15 and be safely on our way. Somewhere between Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree, we realized we must have missed the junction. We turned around and stopped at a construction site to ask. Someone directed us back a few blocks to the road heading up into the mountains. Then shaking his finger at me, he added, “Stay away from that fire, now.” He had no idea, but no one could possibly have desired to heed his advice more ardently than we.
We miss our adopted city, and can’t wait to go back as soon as the smoke clears. We hope there will be something to go back to. Our hearts go out to all the people still in Southern California, and we pray for rain and relief.