Monday, October 22, 2007

FIRE! not here yet, but who knows?

Mother Nature is usually absolutely beautiful. Sometimes she is an absolute horror. It's not all nature's fault - homo sapiens sometimes helps things along.

Tornado. Hurricane. Flood. Earthquake. Storm. Fire. Those have happened since time immemorial - swaths of land are devastated. Homo sapiens have marvelled at, almost worshiped, them from afar. In the middle of them, homo sapiens are helpless.

In San Diego, our two biggest threats are fire and earthquake. In the coastal cities we are about 100 miles away from the San Andreas Fault. The effect of a major earthquake here would be power, water and food shortages due to a big quake somewhere else - like Los Angeles or the Imperial Valley. Fire poses the bigger local threat, especially when there is a high pressure system over the Great Basin - we get Santa Ana winds, usually from the northeast and east, that can gust up to 80 miles per hour. Once a fire starts, the winds carry it quickly, and it often leaps over highways and whole blocks.

San Diego County, and other areas of California, are under siege again from Santa Ana winds and fires (started by people, lightning or downed wires). In the San Diego area, there are several large fires burning westward and southwestward from their origin.

Ramona, with 35,000 people, was evacuated last night. Overnight, the Witch Creek Fire branch north of Ramona rode the winds westward about ten miles right into the heart of suburban San Diego. Whole areas (tens of square miles) are under evacuation orders. This fire is essentially in the San Dieguito River watershed area which stretches from the mountains to the ocean. This river passes south of Escondido skirting Rancho Bernardo and Rancho Penasquitos, then through posh Fairbanks Ranch and posh Rancho Santa Fe to posh Del Mar. It has crossed and shut down I-15 south of Escondido as it burned into the Rancho Bernardo area.

There is another branch of the Witch Creek Fire south of Ramona that is burning in the San Diego river watershed - much of which burned in the Cedar fire in 2003. That may threaten Barona Ranch, Lakeside, Santee and points west. In 2003, the Cedar fire burned across I-15 all the way to I-805 near UCSD in La Jolla.

In southern San Diego County - 30 miles south of the Ramona area fire, the Harris fire started in Potrero, just a mile north of the US-Mexico border near the BC city of Tecate. This fire will likely burn into Mexico along the Tijuana River watershed. It may go up or around Otay Mountain. If it burns around the north side of Otay Mountain, then it may threaten Chula Vista as it burns into the Otay River watershed area east of the city.

There are several more fires in the northern part of San Diego county that have flared up this morning. We thought 2003 was bad - this may end up worse.

Homo sapiens, in its infinite wisdom, has settled in river valleys, on plains and on mountain tops. They build houses all right in a row, sometimes right on top of each other. They love green belts in this quasi-desert area - whole corridors of river bottom and canyons have been made into parks and greenbelts. These parks have tremendous fuel for fires - trees, brush, etc. They become "fire daggers" right into and through the heart of settled areas.

The settled areas are not out of danger. Houses are made of wood and stucco here, with shrubs and trees for beauty. Once started, they burn well due to the construction materials and the contents. Fortunately, most people have replaced their wood shake roofs and treated their eaves. But once a house starts to burn, it burns unless water is on it very quickly. The reality is that a house that starts to burn will burn down, and may take neighbor houses with it.

The fire services are not able to stop the fires from advancing. There are not enough firefighters, not enough engines, not enough water to stop them. The helicopters and fire-fighting aircraft were all sent north over the weekend to fight the Malibu and other fires. Even if they were here, they likely couldn't fly because of the winds and the low visibility. They can only notify people to evacuate and try to control the traffic.

The weather will eventually stop it, with moist air and cooler winds from the west turning the fire back on itself. That may happen on Wednesday or Thursday. All that people can do is save themselves by evacuating away from where the fire is or will be. There are evacuation centers at high schools, and schools are closed.

Right now at 6:30 AM, we are in the middle of the city of Chula Vista, and are not under a fire threat or evacuation order. Who knows what the day will bring? In 2003, the fires were to the north of us and to the south of us, although they burned up to the eastern edge of Chula Vista before the weather turned.

Last month, we had our brush and low tree branches on our hillside cut down, which is the south side of a small canyon with a two-block long greenbelt on our side. There are no bushes or anything near our house, which is at the west end of a cul-de-sac. The winds are from the east - and any fire will burn to the west. The neighbors to the east have lush brush on the hillside. If houses just to our east burn, then we may be in danger.

What should I take in an evacuation? Family papers. Pictures in frames and albums. Laptop. Portable electronics. Batteries. Books to read. We can fill two cars with stuff.

There may be power outages today, so I don't know how long I'll be at the computer today. Our granddaughter is at friends in Chula Vista, and our daughter is 150 miles away. She was going to come down and take Lolo home, but the freeway is closed at Escondido. We may end up with Lolo for the week, which could be fun.

All of a sudden, genealogy is going to take a back seat to survival.

UPDATED 8 AM: Added some detail after reading it. I copied my critical genealogy data from my desktop computer to my flash drive so that I can update my laptop sometime. We've been watching the TV reports on all the local channels. I'll probably go to the library for awhile today. I'll probably stop and get a full tank of gas on the way.

UPDATED 1 PM: There is smoke smell everywhere, and some ashfall. The fires are not in "rich fuel" areas - forests with a lot of wood fuel to burn -- so there is not a lot of ashfall now, and probably won't be. They are evacuating areas about 10 miles east of me and an area south of me. There is little info on the radio or TV for my area - most of the news is about the North County where hundreds of homes have been lost already. In San Diego County, about 300,000 people have been evacuated.

UPDATED 9 PM: The Harris fire has continued to advance westward toward Chula Vista. It has not reached Otay Lakes yet (they form a natural barrier to much of eastern Chula Vista, called Eastlake) but it may during the night or tomorrow morning. There is a mandatory evacuation for the northeastern part of Eastlake - the area on the southern slope of Mount San Miguel. There is a voluntary evacuation call for some of the Eastlake area. The latter is about 6 miles east of us. The winds where I am (just west of I-805 off East Naples) were pretty low all day, but they have been higher out in the back country.

The news media tries so hard, but they don't do live TV well with place names and they don't have a lot of good information. The radio is better with phone callers saying where there is fire or evacuations.

Our 2-year old granddaughter came down with family friends from Victorville on Saturday night, and our daughter was supposed to come get her and take her home today. She couldn't come due to the closure of I-15. The friends evacuated from Eastlake to Lemon Grove, so we have our precious Lolo for probably two nights. She had a rough time going to sleep tonight. We hope there is enough good air to go have fun with her on Tuesday.

The weather report is that the winds will pick up again on Tuesday morning, and die down quite a bit by Tuesday night. I can see the Harris fire going up the southeast side of Mount San Miguel and over it into Spring Valley. It's already advancing on Jamul, which is to the east of the mountain.

If the wind shifts from westerly to southwesterly (which it might), the fire could advance into Eastlake and the city of Chula Vista (which is about 12 miles wide east-west and about 5 miles long (north-south) with 250,000 residents. There aren't too many evacuation centers left now - my thought is that we go rent a room in Coronado and have fun on the beach.

Historically the 1971 fire burned over Mount Miguel and advanced into what is now eastern Chula Vista (which wasn't there in 1971), and the 2003 fire burned right up to Otay Lakes but not up and over San Miguel. There is not the high acreage for this fire (in 2003, there were 245,000 acres burned - about 400 square miles - the total in the county is something like 170,000 acres. The reports say that 600 homes and 1 life have been lost so far in the county, which has 13 separate fires burning, nowhere near the 2003 fire numbers -- 2,000 homes, 15 lives -- at least yet. They may find some people in cars along Highway 94 near where the fire started, or some illegals that crossed the border, but nobody's looking yet - they're too busy fighting the winds and the fires. The evacuations have gone fairly well - many people find shelter with friends and family, but the community shelters are full and up to speed, I heard there were 10,000 at Qualcomm Stadium.

It may be a long night for some people near the fire lines. A blog with frequent posts is at


Lori Thornton said...

I'm so glad you are safe so far. I hope and pray that they'll get the fires under control soon or that you all will get a huge rainfall to take care of it!

Becky Wiseman said...

I just heard they are suggesting voluntary evacuation for Chula Vista. I hope that you and your family are all safe.

I shudder to think of having to evacuate quickly. I've been told it helps to have a checklist handy... that's something that I need to do as well as getting documents and photos scanned. At least I'd have the digital files if the originals were lost. Sounds like a good project for the cold winter days ahead.