Archive for October 24, 2007

Through the Fire

Despite strong Santa Ana winds advisory last Sunday, October 21, we went to Cuyamaca Mountains for our weekend hike.


On the road, we could feel the very strong wind causing our car to vibrate and the tumbleweeds flew all over. We felt for those who were driving their convertibles as tumble weeds could slap into them.

The moment we got out of the car, the very strong dry winds were sweeping us, that even if the temperature was 52 degree Fahrenheit (11 degree Celsius), still, I felt my hands freezing. I guess the icyness came from the rapid evaporation of the moisture that were sucked out from my skin by the passing of the extremely dry wind. Good thing we brought our gloves, always prepared for the harsher elements.

The Cuyamaca Mountains has the second highest peak in San Diego County, next to Warner Springs. The Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, one of California’s largest state parks, has over 100 miles of hiking trails. This mountain less than an hour from downtown San Diego stood before as San Diego’s jewel mountain escape. Those unfamiliar with San Diego and Southern California would probably not believe that such beautiful thick forest could exist in this otherwise desert environment. But then, that was before the cedar fire in 2003, now, the Cuyamaca Mountains appear like a ghost mountain of black charred trees, but a beautifully haunting one.


All of Cuyamaca but the area around the lake got burned from the cedar fire last October 2003, almost exactly 4 years ago. The thick forest disappeared, except for those which surrounds Cuyamaca lake.


 How could the whole forest get burned yet the trees around the lake were spared? 


And how did this otherwise very beautiful forest lost its lush vegetation? Almost exactly four years ago, someone got lost in the trail and started a fire for rescuers to see him, that fire burned out of control. Driven by the Santa Ana winds, the fire burned more than 280,000 acres of land and claimed several lives. For non-Southern Californians who may not be familiar what Santa Ana wind is, the Santa Ana winds are SoCal’s scare with threat of wildfire.

“The Santa Ana winds are warm, dry off-shore winds that appear in Southern California during autumn to early spring when the desert gets cold. The air heats up during adiabatic compression in its descent. The relative humidity of the air declines rapidly and further warms in its final stages of compression as it descends the mountain slopes. The Southern California gets some of its hottest temperatures during autum while Santa Ana winds are blowing. During Santa Ana conditions, it is unusually hotter along the coast than in the desert,  and humidity dropping to single digits threatening fire.” – source: Wikipedia

But despite being a burned forest and looking like a ghost mountain, there is something special in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park that brings me to this place once or twice every year. First, the solitude,


the wildlife,


the meadows,


the migratory birds,


the fall colors around


the small lake,


 and above all of these, the appreciation of the sprouting of a new life after a scorching fire.


It feels both sad and yet uplifting to see how life goes back even in the burned branches of trees, appreciating how nature takes care of our beautiful yet delicate earth. A visit to Cuyamaca, reminds me of how we, just like nature, can pick up the pieces and move on with life.

But little did I know that on that Sunday, almost exactly four years after the cedar fire that scorched this forest and some areas of San Diego County and across Southern California, will be another widespread fire.

On our way back home, we saw firetrucks rushing North of 78. I got a little apprehensive as that is the road that will bring us home. On highway 78 at Santa Ysabel less than 20 miles before Poway Road, we were blocked and were asked to take a detour because of a wildfire in Ramona. 

Our detour was a long scary drive on 79 North. In front of us, we saw thick smokes again, I was starting to realize it was very wrong for us to not heed the warning of Santa Ana winds. Or to put it more bluntly, it was clearly irresponsible of me since it was my idea to hike up the mountains that day. I was afraid to get stuck in the wilderness, in the middle of wildfires. We were relieved when we realized the haze in front of us was due to sand and dust in the sky brought about by the very strong winds! When we were finally approaching home, we saw massive smoke, and kind of orange sky. I was so scared of not having a home to go back to that instead of stopping by at a supermarket to buy fruits for our week supply, I asked my husband to just proceed home. I could not explain the feeling of relief I felt on seeing our house and the trees behind it still standing. However, it looked like there was sunset, only that the sunset was still high on the sky, signs of wildfire somewhere.


When we turned our TV on, we learned the two big fires taking place in San Diego County, the Witchfire in Ramona, less than 20 miles northeast of us, and Harris Fire more than 30 miles South of us. Thinking that the fires were kind of far from us, we had a very good night sleep, all ready to face the Monday morning. However, when we woke up, we were surprised to see and hear the news, wildfire was scorching the Rancho Bernardo Community. Rancho Bernardo is a suburban neighborhood in the northeastern part of San Diego City, with some major business structures from the techno park and science park. 

I was starting to get scared, and could not stop the tears flowing down my face. Our panicking neighbor, knocked on our door, and told us we have evacuation orders to Qualcomm Stadium. My very kind husband on seeing my tears, told me not to get scared and get worried, as the worse thing that could happen is we will just have a new home. Having lived in Southern California for more than 15 years of his life, he is more accepting and understanding of the forces of nature, whether it be brushfire from Santa Ana winds, landslides, and possible earthquake. For him, there is always risk wherever you are, tornadoes in the midwest, hurricanes in the southeast and east, snowstorms in the northeast and midwest, that after all weighing the pros and cons and after living and experiencing other cities, San Diego, for him, is his piece of paradise on earth. All we need is to prepare for this possible calamities so that when it hits us, we will not end up on the streets of nothingness. With calmness in our hearts, we started to pack some clothes, and important papers that will put back order to our lives just in case the fire will hit our home.

There were confusion in our part as we were heading to Qualcomm stadium to take refuge, do we go there?, do we stay in hotel instead?, or do we go to L.A.? However, since I was thinking of my teaching obligations, I decided to stay in San Diego at Qualcomm, which was a good choice.  I think it is really different to be with the other evacuees, seeing them still in jovial spirit despite the uncertainties, helps deal with our own uncertainties. Both of us had calls from our friends and relatives, asking us how we were doing, some of the friends offering their place for us to stay. Some were questionning our decision of staying in SD when we could flee to L.A. than being incovenient in an evacuation center, but our reply always was, with the strong Santa Ana winds, fleeing San Diego to L.A. may bring us more inconvenience if we get stuck on the road with all the road closures because of the fire. We thank all our friends and relatives who remembered us in this tough time and checked on us right away if we were affected, their calls and concern were uplifting our spirits to brave the conditions, through the fire.

I guess, there is always a first time for something, in my case, first time to be a refugee or an evacuee. I was spared of that experience in the Philippines, but not here, in the land of milk and honey. Clearly, not the kind of American dream Filipinos have in mind.


It is also my first time inside the Qualcomm Stadium (for free), home of the San Diego Chargers.


Some of my friends worry about our stay in evacuation center, thinking it may be a trap for criminal activity, like what happened to Louisiana and New Orleans. However, far from the fears of some, the evacuation center had some kind of jovial atmosphere. There may be an occasional burst of tears, but people manage to smile despite the uncertainties of having a home to go back to when the firestorm is over. The insurance representatives are there, offering help to clients as early as they could. Paramedics were around for evacuees who may seek medical attention from the stress they were going through. Counselors were there to provide comfort for those who may feel emotionally upset with the conditions. There was a clown to entertain the kids who may have no full idea of what could happen,


there was live music,


abundance of gourmet type of foods catered by hotels and restaurants. Wide gourmet type of food choices, from Asian, to Italian, to American, to Indian, to Mexican, and vegetarian. However, as we were picky on foods, I just usually pick fruits, vegetables and rice.


It is also my first time to see up close our city Mayor, Jerry Sanders,


and our state governor,


Arnold Schwarzeneger (I never would have imagined seeing up close the actor behind the Terminator in person),


who both came to visit to assure the evacuees that the San Diego City, the San Diego County, the California State and the US Federal government are behind us to provide assistance and to help control the fire which as of that moment was still impossible to contain because of the very unusual strong Santa Ana wind as the fuel. Plus this year was our driest in 70 years history (imagine single humidity and negative degrees Fahrenheit dewpoint?), the hottest in 90 years history this time of the year, all of these, are components of a major wildfire.   

It was so inspiring to see all the help coming in. Some people put up their own tents, thousands of tents were also set up by the city and by the county, there were new blankets provided, new pillows, cots, to protect the evacuees from the harsh elements since the night would still turn chilly and cold even with the hot Santa Ana wind .

On waking up Tuesday morning, the first thing we did was to call our home phone, because the answering machine will be the indicator if it was eaten up by fire or not. So glad to hear it works. Now, we are back safe to the comfort of our home, very thankful that the fire spared us, but also sad for the hundreds in our community who will not have a home to return to. There is still trace of the Witchfire going on that can be seen from our backyard,


bad smoke in the air, but at least, there are fewer fire helicopters in the air now that is a welcome sign that the fire in Rancho Bernardo and Poway area is mostly contained, but does not mean that the Witchfire is contained, it spread northwest, scorching areas in Rancho Santa Fe, Del Mar and Encinitas, and actually scorching some new parts of Rancho Bernardo again, the Rancho Bernardo Winery.

 Our prayers of strength, and good health for all the victims, and for the firefighters who still have to brave the dangers of containing the fire. I admire their courage, God help and give them continued strength, determination and good health. Prayers of strength and courage to rebuild for those who have lost their homes, maybe still here, or somewhere else.  And prayers for the continued safety of everyone. 


October 24, 2007 at 7:02 pm 1 comment

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