Jim Jewell: Reflections from the fire

Unlike the last two times, Maureen and I did not feel threatened by the San Diego wildfires this past week.
May 20, 2014
Jim Jewell


Unlike the last two times, Maureen and I did not feel threatened by the San Diego wildfires this past week.

The “Santa Ana” conditions, complete with “devil winds,” dealt devastation again, but for a change, the fires were well north or east of our home.

Yet the three days of intense burning in the Southwest corner created terrible statistics: 13 fires in San Diego County burned 28,247 acres; destroyed 20 houses, 18 apartment units, 28 office or other buildings, and numerous but uncounted outbuildings, and forced 177,000 families to evacuate their homes. One charred body was found in an area popular with transients. However compared to statistics from the two previous wildfire onslaughts, last week’s tally brings a sigh of relief. 

From our hillside in 2003, we watched one fire to the southeast veer off a beeline toward us, allowing us to breathe easier. Smoke and ash drifted down on our neighborhood, but we were lucky. The “Fire Siege of 2003” created 14 major fires that lasted for 15 days, burned more than 750,000 acres and destroyed more than 3,700 homes. Twenty-four people were killed, including one firefighter.

The 2007 fires included 16 conflagrations across three counties. The Harris Fire turned Mount Miguel just east of us into a Roman candle in the middle of the night. We piled our pets, some important belongings, and ourselves into a car and fled to our friends’ home on Coronado Island, returning the next day. 

The statistics from that fire: 17 people lost their lives and 140 firefighters and an unknown number of civilians were injured; 3,069 homes and other buildings were destroyed, and hundreds more were damaged. More than a million people were evacuated. The fires burned more than half a million acres.

The statistics on destruction from last week’s fires undoubtedly were lower due to the lessons from the two previous fires. Coordination of the swath of resources, especially in the aviation elements was vastly more effective than in the earlier fires. And something that didn’t exist to any great degree in 2007 was a major tool in communication this time. Social media, especially twitter gave emergency managers more timely information on the fires than they had ever received before.

In this crisis, more than 2,600 firefighters were brought to bear while countless other emergency personnel and law enforcement officers provided support. Six different types of aircraft from a variety of organizations including the Navy and Marine Corps were used to combat the fires.

When the winds died down but the heat remained high, another negative factor came into play. As a fire burns, it sucks in oxygen from the surrounding area and creates its own weather pattern. One of the most terrifying effects has generated a new term, “firenados.” The fierce heat and wind generation can create a tornado-like funnel of flames, smoke, and debris with immense energy. Obviously, this makes fighting the fire even more dangerous.

Yet this fire brought about a surreal moment for Maureen and me.

Thursday, with the fires well north, we drove to our favorite downtown restaurant for an early dinner. As we came down our hill, we spotted smoke flumes appearing much closer than the reported fires. As I drove, one caller into a local talk station told the host, he was near a fire downtown. Shortly afterward, the station’s news validated that fire existed.

Traffic began to slow as we headed right for this new fire. The flames leapt 20-30 feet in the air and smoke wafted over our freeway. The radio station reported firefighters were on the scene. When we returned from dinner, the fire had been extinguished.

But as we drove through the short-lived fire, traffic slowed almost to a standstill, the result of “looky-loos,” drivers slowing to watch the spectacle. Some even lowered their windows to take photos and videos. The results were predictable. We saw at least four accidents caused by the distraction and just plain bad driving.

Our neighbors, Bob and Susan Doane brought the face of danger to our neighborhood. Their daughter, Angela, has a home in San Marcos which was saved when a DC-10 dropped 12,000 gallons of fire retardant on the fire raging next to the backyard. The drop undoubtedly saved Angela’s home and possessions.

So the fires of last week did not destroy any homes of our friends.

But it was close, too close.

Jim Jewell, a retired Navy commander lives in San Diego but was raised in Lebanon. His book, A Pocket of Resistance: Selected Poems, is now available through Author House, Amazon and Barnes and Noble online. Jim’s email is jim@jimjewwell.com.


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