Monday, October 22, 2007

FIRESTORM 2007! - Day 1

It all caught up with me last night. I got sick, some bedridden misery befell me, and in my medicated fog before I drifted off, I caught the alien sounds of the emergency broadcast tones -and then this morning awoke to find the world on fire.

This was the view on the way to work:

and then:

and then:

We had another weekend of selling our wares at the Home Show at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. It was met with little success, as this is the time of year that sales of Alumawood slow to the pace of L.A. traffic. Evidently, patio covers won't fit into the stockings as snugly as an iPod.

Mrs. Ditchman came home a bit early from the show on Sunday, claiming that the smoke was driving everyone away. What smoke? I wondered. We guessed there was a fire, so I put off taking down the booth until this morning -sometimes it's easier that way.

And then, after a difficult night suffering from the wheezy-scratchy bug, I awoke to the news. Ramona was being evacuated. Ramona is a town to the east of here, maybe 30 miles or so, of about 25,000 people. All of Ramona was being evacuated? That wasn't all. Fire was blowing to the west and moving through Rancho Bernardo, a large San Diego suburb, and directly west of that, the Del Mar Fairgrounds -which had just announced it had been designated a Primary Evacuation Center.

Well, I guess I better get down there and tear down the booth, then.

It was like driving into the gaping maw of the apocalypse. The sky turned a dismal brown, ash fell from it, the sun was blotted out. The traffic was pretty bad, but people seemed to be driving slow out of extra caution. I stopped to get gas and cars were lined up at the pumps. Children were told to stay in the vehicles, their mothers held towels over their faces. It was exciting!

Which is awful of me, I know. This always happens. There's an earthquake or a terrorist attack or a bad storm and a thrilling bit of adrenaline shoots through you, if only for a moment, and then there's some guilt about it, as you see all those who suffer from the events of the day. I imagine the thrill disappears completely when it's your house that's in danger, your family who suffers -adrenaline of a different kind and amount altogether.

So then I started to move. I arrived at the Fairgrounds and a guy was standing at the gate. Just standing there. No uniform, no badge, no air of authority. It was obvious he had been yanked from bed and told to man the evacuation center! I pulled up. "Uh, are you stopping people here?"

"Well. Yeah."

"I'm supposed to be tearing down for yesterday's Home Show."

"Okay, go for it," he said.

I think this is what happens in times of crisis: authority is handed out to those who are focused, those on task, or at least, those who are standing nearby. There's only so many people not panicking, so put them to work! I drove on in, no I.D., no badge, no questions.

When I got in to the hall where our stuff was, I immediately started striking it, moving quickly as I knew this space would soon be something else. It seemed everyone there was moving a bit faster -and quieter, too. No one shared a word. Outside, the palm trees were blowing over, tents from the show were flapping in the wind, branches were falling from the sky, and there was the unmistakable smell of burning suburbia.

It's a smell you grow up with, living in SoCal. Every city here is lined with brush, where the sprinklers end, and every few years when there's no rain at all and the Spirit of Santa Ana blows through, it catches fire. You smell it from miles off, to varying degrees depending on the prevailing winds, and if it gets really bad, ash falls from the sky like a cancerous winter -it resembles snow, but it's dry, hot, and clogs the lungs. It doesn't snow in Southern California.

We got everything down and headed out, past a hundred cars and trucks bringing in local livestock. Within hours, all 1800 horse corrals would be full and that evening the place would house thousands of refugees.

We made it home, where there was blue sky directly above our house. You could see smoke blowing to the south and north of us, and by the end of the day it seemed Oceanside was the only town in San Diego County without at least a Cautionary Evacuation notice. They had shut down many of the freeways and evacuated nearly a quarter of a million people. Some of them people we knew.

Local news has been covering it all day. This evening I went out to see if the closest fire to us was visible from our neighborhood. It was.

The fire in Fallbrook, named "The Rice Fire", was ablaze about ten miles northeast of us. You could see it from just down our street. At sunset, cars were lined up and many people in the neighborhood came out to watch, silently wondering if it would come our way. "You never know with the Santa Anas," one guy said, "They blow this way, then that, then stop to catch their breath." It's true, I've seen it. And I know that smoldering ash can blow a mile or two and start a new fire within minutes.

The television showed what we've seen before: homes burning to the ground indiscriminately. Three houses would burn down and then the next one on the street would be untouched, and then the next one would be burned down, and then the next three would be untouched. The fire doesn't care.

There was a new term added to the popular lexicon, the "Reverse 911". Evidently, instead of calling the authorities and reporting that you have an emergency on your hands, they now call you and tell you that you have an emergency on your hands. We put some thought into what we'd need to pack, left the news on, and waited for the call.

This is a night I'll never forget -for a lot of reasons- but largely it was the reminding of Family, and how all this burning around us can burn and burn and steal everything material away from you in an instant, but it changes nothing.

That is, as long as you evacuate your family when you're told to.