Tuesday, October 23, 2007
All Hell Breaking Loose, Day 3 (Updated)
1:30 a.m.: The evacuation count countywide is now at 300,000, with some established shelters like the Del Mar Fairgrounds now shuffling the elderly to a safer place. It's siginificant that some communities west of the 5 freeway are under voluntary evacations now. That's the beach, and that means the Witch Creek fire -- the one that's impacting the most people -- is now looking to burn clear to the ocean, consuming homes in the wealthiest enclaves along the way.
It isn't as windy where we're at, but our community's now under a voluntary evacuation, according to the crawler running under an infomercial on KUSI. None of the other stations, far as I can tell, are saying anything about communities south of the 56 freeway, but some are mentioning Black Mountain Road (our main feeder road) in roundup reports and warning the Witch Creek fire may head into Carmel Ranch Mountain and Mira Mesa, of which our section of Rancho Penasquitos is wedged between.
People south of Palomar Airport Road in Carlsbad remain under a voluntary evacuation as well. Chula Vista's evacuation pattern throughout the evening is quickly changing from one of voluntary to involuntary as the Harris fire creeps westward. Same for communities like Jamul and the Mount Miguel/Spring Valley areas to the north. In terms of visible damage, the southern end of Escondido and especially northern end of Rancho Bernardo have been hardest hit from a structure standpoint, with hundreds and hundreds of homes lost to the Witch Creek and San Pasqual Valley fires, which merged yesterday.
As more and more heavily populated areas are forced to flee, more evacuation shelters will be needed. There's talk of the Sports Arena near Point Loma, Balboa Park and Petco Park being next to open to evacuees, no doubt stretching already stressed resources even farther.
6 a.m.: I just walked around my immediate neighborhood to get a sense of who's still here and who's ready to bolt at any minute. Most of the cars in driveways and along the roads are packed to the gills, which is a good sign that people are still paying attention. We fell asleep for a few hours, but before and after I listened as citizens phone into TV studios and radio stations to keep everyone abreast of where the fires were moving. I was impressed at their accuracy (they seemed ahead of the fire officials at some points) and lack of hype, not trained to deliver "the news" with a snappy soundbite or using a mental thesaurus to top adjectives already used during the last live spot. The latest callers said there's a new flareup in Rancho Bernardo, Escondido and Rancho Santa Fe, but we'll see if there's confirmation at the next news conference. Most overnight coverage focused on the burning landscape at Mount San Miguel that's definitely put the people in East County on alert.
Meantime, Qualcomm's waking up and it looks like the party atmosphere continues. A guy described the place as "a great tailgate party, without the game."
7:40 a.m.: First, they told us to stay off our cell phones; then, stay off the roads. Now, everyone's being asked to conserve power and water. Of the 25 shelters, 18 still have openings.
As the sun comes up, I can see heavy smoke on three sides of us, and with calmer winds than the last two days, it's just hanging heavy in the acrid air. Some of it is from Poway, but mostly its from homes going up just northwest of us in Rancho Santa Fe. The mercurial winds could turn on us, but for the time being I'm glad to have this unique vantage point -- access to all media (TV, radio, Internet); access to all my creature comforts (food, water, shelter, shower); and views of the southern end of the Witch Creek fire as it burns around us.
10:30 a.m.: More media attention's being paid to the refuge centers, maybe because now there are almost 350,000 people in them, according to one local station. It actually said there were 345,000 homes evacuated, but I question that. Then again, it could be. Jamul and Indian Springs residents are now heading to Qualcomm, and earlier they had to remove residents of assisted living complexes in the Lawrence Welk "resort" area of northern Escondido. Meantime, reports are coming in that sections of Poway are opened to residents to return to today.
Here, the smoke still hangs heavy on three sides of us, but, as I just told someone, it's sunny and clear to the south of us -- so we know which way to drive for a quick getaway. About an hour ago, I pulled the camera out of a bag deep in the carload because I couldn't resist sneaking a shot of my neighbor. I thought again and decided not to publish it. Let's just say he's a middle-aged man who was sweeping again, this time while wearing oversized swim trunks, a white T-shirt and military-grade gas mask. He dumped the ashes in his trash bin that, not surprisingly, no one's picked up. When he went to wash down his car, I almost went over to warn him against it. You see, you should never spray down an ashy car; instead, you brush it off to avoid it mixing with water and creating a sandy surface that can scratch up paint. I didn't though, because I suddenly realized I myself was still wearing my night clothes from the waist down.
12:45 p.m. Julian, a beautiful mountain town that often falls victim to wildfires, is now under mandatory evacuations. Meantime, Scripps Ranch got the all-clear signal about a half hour ago, as did sections of Poway. Escondido's the hot spot at the moment and I'm noticing more TV anchors issuing mea culpas for giving out erroneous evacuation news. I guess some areas weren't told to leave last night. But better safe than sorry.
I'm working from home and glad to have a distraction. I hate to say it, but as we enter the third day of this, "fire fatigue" is creeping in and I want to avoid that. There are still many places under seige, particularly down in Chula Vista's heavily populated Eastlake and nearby Bonita.
1:45 p.m.: As I just wrote to someone, the calmness engulfing us now seems all the more surreal watching televised chaos in areas where the fires press on unabated. Big homes in the Del Dios area above Lake Hodges -- a popular trail system for runners, hikers and mountain bikers that straddles Escondido and Rancho Bernardo -- are the latest showcase. Meantime, Steele Canyon High School, one of the first shelters set up for Harris fire victims in the southern section of the county is having to close down as flames from Mt. Miguel approach quickly and too closely. I haven't heard where everyone's heading yet. On the good news front: Looks like Chula Vista's Eastlake is being spared now, particularly Rolling Hills Ranch and San Miguel Ranch.
I have to say, I am amazed at how many horse owners there are here. Fiesta Island in the Mission Bay recreational complex is now reaching out to those with horses who've been turned away from other sites at or over capacity. A friend downtown reports the air is smelly and hazy but still relatively healthy.
A glitch with the reverse 911 service that's getting some play: apparently some VoIP (Internet telephone) customers aren't getting the calls, nor anyone who exclusively uses a cell phone.
5 p.m.: Wow, the television stations are reporting that almost a million people have now been displaced by the fires. One in three living in the area are without their home right now. Five people killed. Not sure how many more injured.
We're starting to get startling aerial shots of ravaged neighborhoods, particularly in Fallbrook right now. There's one videotaped altercation between a man who hijacked a fire hose to save his house and a Sacramento fire chief who told him to get off his roof and out of town. That man's house was spared, but apparently at the expense of his neighbors. This was in one of the neighborhoods near Lake Hodges (where this photo from the Union-Tribune also was taken).
Here's a YouTube link.
7:30 p.m.: The lack of sleep over the last few nights is catching up with me. I am not going to last much longer tonight, so before I nod off for a few hours, I wanted to alert anyone that may be wondering about a friend or family member that the American Red Cross has a site with a Safe and Well List (safeandwell.org). It's a registry of people who've checked into a Red Cross shelter during the fires. It appears to have about 800 names filed within the last 24 hours, so it's just a fraction of people who've been evacuated nationwide. But it may help someone who's lost track of a loved one.
Here's a link to the site.