The Witch Creek Fire, My Experience

I started this post a few days ago. I’ll add the pictures in later as flickr is being difficult; here is the text anyway… There are pictures at:

I actually have a very legitimate reason for not posting last week for a change. I wish it was just that I’d been lazy or busy or whatever, but unfortunately not. I live in the community of Westwood within Rancho Bernardo in San Diego, CA. My neighborhood was hit very badly by the Witch Creek Fire last Monday. I am still completely in shock that this could have happened in my neighborhood and my heart breaks for all the people who lost their homes…including several people that I actually know.

Where do I start? Well, last Sunday the fire broke out up near Julian; the conjecture is downed power lines and Santa Ana winds. I guess that’s good as the only way this could possibly be worse is if it had been set intentionally. When I went to bed Sunday night at 11:30 the ash was extremely thick outside and my biggest concern was what to do with Luke on Monday since school was closed because of the air quality. The 11pm news conference covered how the San Pasqual Valley was being evacuated. Not once did I hear them mention Rancho Bernardo; I’d have packed the car the night before and saved myself a lot of stress if I’d thought it might get that far.

At 5:10am on Monday I woke up to the sound of a police loudspeaker on my street saying “you are completely surrounded by wildfires and must evacuate immediately.” I called Tom in a panic as he was supposed to be going to DC for a business trip. He told me not to panic and said that they were just being extra careful (little did we know our neighborhood was already burning at this point). He said to pack a few things and he’d be over shortly. 20 minutes passed and he called to say the traffic was really thick but he was on his way. A few minutes later he called and said I’d have to get out on my own because he couldn’t get to my home.

I managed to pack up my six year old, two cats, and whatever I could think of (Luke’s baby book, pictures, finished stitching, laptop, etc) and opened the front door. I knew by the ash blowing in under the front door that it would be bad but wow. I packed up the car and headed in the direction Tom had gone. At 6:30am I was at the corner of Matinal Rd and Matinal Dr in a huge line of cars. It turned out that Tom was not even a quarter mile in front of me so he pulled over in front of the La Terraza apartments and waited. I left my car there and we moved everything into his car.

It took four hours to get out and here are a couple images from the evacuation:

looking back towards our neighborhood:


When we saw those flames on the hill to the south west of our neighborhood, above, (the fire came from the north east) we were sure everything was gone. We spent the day going from place to place; we had breakfast at Mimi’s in Mira Mesa with Tom’s parents (who were also evacuated). The restaurant was full of stunned people from Rancho Bernardo. Many people from my community had just minutes to get out. We didn’t know what, if anything, would be left.

By noon we saw footage on TV of La Terraza burning. A couple hours later a camera person finally panned down the street and we saw that my car was still there. Tom had the idea to call his answering machine, which picked up. Mine didn’t and I was pretty concerned. All afternoon we watched footage of homes burning that we could exactly pinpoint on a map. Homes we’ve walked by so many times. We spent Monday night (and Tuesday and Wednesday) at Tom’s sister’s house in San Marcos. Monday night my cousin called to say that she called my house phone by mistake and the answering machine picked up. That was such a huge relief! We still didn’t sleep though; nothing official had been released yet about which homes had burned (that list came out Tuesday afternoon) and all I could think about was the people I know on the streets that we knew had been hit so far.

Tuesday we sat around most of the day and then spent hours online comparing the list with homes we knew. It was bad. Two homes on Tom’s parent’s street burned down, including the parents of one of his childhood friends. I’ve heard figures like 500-600 homes total in RB, between 4-5 neighborhoods; still not sure what the final tally is. At least 40 kids at Luke’s school lost their homes, including people we know. It’s amazing to see how many people we know are on the affected streets but their homes are still there (of course most of their homes are unlivable right now).

We were finally let back in Thursday. We took the police escort in Thursday morning to get ten minutes at our homes to gather belongings. Our escort was SO nice; we went to Tom’s home first, picked up my car, and then went to my home. Here are some pictures from that…

The street we had to drive down to get to Tom’s house:

The apartments across the street from Luke’s school, where my car was parked:

The trees 15 feet from where my car was parked:

After the president visited our neighborhood we were allowed to go back in without escorts. I was pretty ticked off because I wouldn’t have sat in the 2 hour line of cars if I’d known they’d let us back in for good a few hours later. My home was almost untouched; there was ash in the entry way and at the cat door but the furniture was fine and it’s definitely livable. Tom’s home has some smoke damage. It turns out that his backyard burned. Someone was in his yard because his hose was stretched out across the back fence in the canyon. The pile of wood from the fence he’d replaced on Sunday was gone; all that remains is a scorched black patch and a bunch of nails. The back fence is mostly gone and the back two feet or so of the ground are scorched. Here are some pictures of the back yard:

I still haven’t driven through the worst hit streets. I know people who live on some of them but I don’t need to go there and I’m not ready to make that trip.

Luke’s school started back in session om Monday; it was the headline of Tuesday’s local news: . I know the people in the article, nearly all of them and reasonably well. This whole experience has been so surreal. The Red Cross has been absolutely incredible; I can’t say enough about them. As for the reverse 911 calls, well, the idea is great but the system needs some work. I know a handful of people who actually got them early enough for it to make a difference. I know many more people who answered the phone and nothing was there. Even more people never got a call or came home to find one on their answering machine; Tom and I both got calls after 8am. So many people I know had minutes to get out with no warning. When the media talks about people not heeding the evacuation notice, well, yes that does happen but for most of us in RB we didn’t get evacuated until our neighborhood was already burning. The firefighters and police have all been great through this and they worked SO hard but there are not enough resources in our area.

Well I guess I’m rambling here. There’s so much more I have to say about this experience but this is enough for now. Next up I’ll post about Halloween…


3 Responses to “The Witch Creek Fire, My Experience”

  1. Christine S Says:

    Wow. Just wow. I’m so glad that you, Luke and Tom are okay and that your homes are okay. I feel terrible for the people who lost their homes and everything in them.

  2. Susan Says:

    {{{Jill, Tom, and Luke}}} – I’m glad that you were able to get out, and that your homes weren’t damaged. My heart breaks for your neighbors and friends who lost their homes.

  3. suz Says:

    I’m so glad that you made it through OK. I’m so very sorry for your neighbors, friends, family, and anyone else who has suffered.

    I thank you for your first hand “view” of what happened. I know that the media and everything gives a different view, and it helps me understand the disaster so much more when you hear a personal non-hyped non-media view.

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