July 25, 2009

San Diego Wildfires: One Woman's Evacuation Story

October 2007

Mid-morning on Sunday of this week, my four-year-old son was putting together a puzzle while I did laundry and vacuumed. The windows were open to allow the warm autumn breeze to freshen the indoor air. I sat on the couch for a moment to rest, and noticed the slight smell of smoke. Within the hour a haze darkened the skyline visible from the windows of our apartment a little south of the community of Rancho Bernardo in San Diego. I turned on the television and switched channels, hoping to catch any news of what I assumed was a small, local brush fire. From recent news reports, I knew that the fire danger was high due to the dry conditions and Santa Ana winds, but I didn't think it was possible we'd have a repeat of the 2003 Cedar fire, much less something worse.

I tuned to channel 9 because they had hourly news breaks, and sure enough, I soon heard confirmation that there was a fire. It was far from our home, so I closed the windows and forgot about it for the rest of the afternoon.

By the time my husband returned home from work, the smoke was so bad in our apartment, even with the doors and windows shut tight, that we turned the television back on. Now it was easy to find a news update. The Witch Creek fire burned out of control in the gusting wind, and it was headed our way.

My son's room was smokier than the rest of the apartment, so he slept between my husband and me that first night. This is tantamount to no one sleeping at all. I am the lightest sleeper on earth, my husband is the heaviest of sleepers and the least conscious of his movements (read: bed hog) and my son prefers never to sleep at all. No threat, whispered, growled or even yelled, dampened my child's uncontrollable wiggling - he seems to suffer from a bizarre form of restless leg syndrome affecting his entire body. At 3:30am, the radio woke me from a light sleep, and I got my husband up. He and his friend Jeff were flying out of state for job interviews and would be gone until Wednesday.

My son had finally settled into a deep sleep, so he was unaware when the alarm went off for the second time at 5:30am. I got up and got ready for work as usual. Because the smell of smoke was still strong in the apartment, I went into the living room and turned on the television. Every major station had coverage of the fire and they were talking about mandatory evacuations in my neighborhood. I turned on my laptop and found a website that showed a map of where the fire was estimated to be - five miles from our apartment. There were so many structures between us and the fire that I knew in my heart that it would never reach us. Still, I hesitated to follow my usual routine, and instead of heading for work, I sat in front of the television and watched the news coverage. A reporter alerted viewers in my area to expect a "reverse 9-1-1 call" to evacuate.

When the phone rang less than an hour later, I instinctively knew I was one of the unlucky ones. Sure enough, a recorded message in a woman's voice told me it was mandatory that I leave.
I like to think that in my 4 decades I have developed a measure of common sense, but lack of sleep seemed to have rerouted the synapses of my brain controlling logic. In other words, I kind of panicked. In my defense, I'd been listening on the news about the seriousness of heeding the reverse 9-1-1 call. "Ignore it to your peril," "Don't misuse precious fire fighter resources by forcing them to evacuate you," "Get out before you die a terrible fiery death, you fools!" Okay, so the last warning was a product of my sleep-deprived imagination, but I remembered the horror from the Cedar fire, hearing how entire families were trapped on the road and burned to death in their cars as they tried to evacuate. I didn't want to be stuck in traffic with the rest of my neighbors as the fire swept over us.

First I fired off an email to my employers letting them know I wasn't coming in. Then I hurriedly emptied my gym bag of a week's worth of clean exercise clothes and started shoving in what I thought might come in handy. As I looked around the apartment, I realized that I had no idea where our photo albums were, nor our little fire-proof safe. We'd recently sold our house and were only here in this apartment temporarily. We hadn't even unpacked the majority of the boxes.

Into the gym bag went my laptop, six cans of soda water, two bananas, my son's portable game player, four random children's dvds, and a fistful of papers from my bill-paying binder that I erroneously thought were the birth certificates, etc. (I later flipped through the paperwork to discover that I'd saved my typing certificate and the warranty on our couch, among other embarrassingly non-essential documents.)

I called my husband and left a voice mail that we were leaving. I dressed my son and led him out to the calm, vehicle-packed parking lot. He watched, motor-mouth running under an adorable mop of uncombed sleep hair, as I opened the truck door, stirring up a flurry of ash. In almost three months of residing in this neighborhood, other than the occasional wave hello, I had met none of my neighbors. A lethargic-looking young man shuffled from the garbage bin on his way back to his apartment.

"Did you get the call to evacuate?" I asked him.

"No," he replied, looking at me like I was a little insane.

"I did," I said.

He shrugged and walked on. I fastened my son into his car seat and drove out.

The entrance to the freeway was blocked by orange cones and police cars with lights flashing, so I joined a long line of vehicles down a side street. Every gas station I passed had cars lined up out into the street. Most everyone was polite and patient as we inched forward, and the entire scene seemed surreal. I turned on the radio and heard that we should limit cell phone usage.

Ten minutes into the evacuation, my son announced that he had to go potty. I informed him that he'd best hold it unless he wanted to go on the side of the road. The little scamp proceeded to argue with me that yes, he would very much like to go on the side of the road - that sounded like fun!

It took about a half an hour to get on the 15 south. Due to the freeway closure to the north, the lanes were free and clear even with the steady stream of vehicles evacuating to the south.

My cell rang and it was my husband, calling from his layover in Salt Lake City. I apprised him of the situation and he and Jeff insisted that I go straight to Jeff's house. I was hesitant because I had yet to actually meet Jeff's wife Jennifer, and it seemed like a poor time to do so, but my husband put Jeff on the phone and I was obligated at that point to foist myself upon the kindness of strangers.

My son and I stayed with Jennifer for several hours. I never really believed that I would be ousted from my home for long. I didn't think that our apartment was in real danger. What couldn't occur to me was that city and county officials were prepared to keep entire neighborhoods in limbo waiting to get back home while they assessed the damage.

Jeff and Jennifer's son is a two-year-old just as active as my son. Our boys proceeded to bounce off the walls, further stressing me out. I love my son more than anything, but right about then I sure would have liked to have an off switch installed on him somewhere. Compounding the frenetic activity, Jennifer kept trying to introduce her poor little dog into the equation. Every time fat little Sasha came indoors, my son would let loose with his particularly high-pitched screams. He wanted to see the doggie, but the doggie also wanted to see him - and whenever Sasha approached with any kind of enthusiasm, my son freaked out.

I removed my boy from the chaos temporarily, out into the smoky air to pick up pizza for dinner, a particularly grating chore considering I had just the day before committed to a new diet that definitely did not have large amounts of cheese and bread on the menu. But food is a necessary evil, and easy food was the most appealing under the circumstances.

After eating pizza in front of the television, where every station blared fire news coverage, I began to panic in a different way. My son and Jennifer's were getting along surprisingly well, but I knew that would not last. Under pressure of forced confinement, the boys would soon begin to squabble. I understand my son's nature - after all, my four-year-old handful inherited his level of energy from me. Under duress I will admit I'm high-strung, but in opposition to my own nature, I have little tolerance for it. I most desire to be admired for my calm, logical intelligence - a cultivated personality trait that flew out the window soon after the first fire began to burn.
I wanted to go home, or at least be someplace where I had the autonomy to do what I chose without concern that I must follow my host's rules. Jennifer had been nothing but gracious to us, but I just couldn't stay.

I spent about half an hour online trying to find hotel rooms, but even the five-star accommodations were all sold out. Because there were now several fires burning in the county, there had been more evacuations, hundreds of thousands of displaced people. There were plenty of useless hotel rooms available in the evacuated areas, of course.

One after the other, I got phone calls on my cell from two friends checking up on me and my son's preschool director, who told me the preschool was closed for the rest of the week. Just as I'd resigned myself to ousting Jennifer's innocent two-year old from his bedroom, my grown daughter called.

Of course! She and her boyfriend had an apartment in a safe location in the county - safe for the time being, anyway. Why hadn't I thought of staying with her? Well, it probably had to do with my feelings of obligation after my husband and his friend colluded to put me with Jennifer. In addition, I did not want to hurt Jennifer's feelings by rejecting her offer of hospitality.

But I went ahead and did it anyway.

Jennifer was upstairs changing the sheets on her son's bed when I announced that I was leaving, but would she mind if I borrowed her inflatable mattress and a pillow and some blankets because my college-student daughter lived in a one-bedroom slum that barely had basic amenities?

My nebulous plan as I high-tailed it out of Jeff and Jennifer's comfortable home was to buy them a big fruit basket in thanks and apology as soon as things were back to normal. There was no way I could erase the first impression I'd left Jennifer with - that I'm a scatter-brained stressed-out lunatic who can't properly pack an evacuation bag - but my impression of her was that she's smart and understanding and perhaps even forgiving.

Driving in the dark to my daughter and her boyfriend's apartment calmed me. I was back in charge. (Sigh.)

The first thing that greeted me upon entering my daughter's apartment was the unsubtle ammonia stench of unchanged cat box. Right away my son began entertaining himself chasing the fat, lazy flies that buzzed about. My daughter explained that they'd had a stubborn case of flies for some time, and she didn't know why. That attractive-to-vermin cat box in the bathroom came immediately to my mind, but I tried to be charitable, because when I was in college I'd lived in more than one place that was sub-sanitary, including an unforgettable stint in a bat-infested locale. However, the first time my son pinched a dead fly he'd found on the windowsill between his little fingers, I nearly had a conniption.

Since my son hadn't napped at Jennifer's house, he was like a ball bearing in a pinball machine, pinging off the furniture in my daughter's tiny apartment. She and her boyfriend retreated to their bedroom while I tried to calm my son down enough to sleep - a difficult enough task on a good day. Once he was finally out cold, I took a moment to lovingly study his quiet profile, appreciating that our situation may not be optimally comfortable, but we were unharmed and out of the danger zone.

I watched television for another hour before the stress-induced headache I'd been battling all day forced me to try to sleep. I lay down on the spring-loaded, sagging day bed, fearful with every move that it would collapse. My sleep was once again fitful and unsatisfying.

In the morning, the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services, or OES, had a press conference. The county supervisor, the mayor, the police chief, the sheriff, the fire chief and various other grim-faced officials spoke one after the other, each spending huge chunks of precious air-time thanking each other, followed by a few short sentences reiterating what we already knew.

My neighborhood was thus far the hardest hit, with hundreds of homes lost. There was no estimate at that time for "repopulating" the area.

We went out to breakfast. My daughter's boyfriend informed me that any attempt to fight him for the check would result in my losing, so I let him buy. Then we went to Target so I could purchase the items I should have brought with me. Luckily, my daughter had no compunctions accepting my offer to buy her a few household necessities, and we left with an overflowing cart.

The southern California day was hot and windy and our eyes burned from the thick, unhealthy air. Inside the apartment, the tiny air-conditioner struggled to keep the temperature below 90 degrees. I'd purchased a toy for my son to keep him occupied: a remote control spider that he promptly broke. It was clear I'd need to make another toy run, and I wanted to give my daughter and her steadfastly patient boyfriend a break from the exhausting dynamo that was my son, so I packed him up and went to Henry's for some groceries.

My husband called while we were there.

"How's it going?" he asked, like I was out for a Sunday stroll.

"Um...I'd like to go home," I said.

"When are they letting you back in?"

"Every time we call 2-1-1, they ask us for our zip code and tell us we can't go back. But when we look at the evacuation maps online, some of them look like we can. It's very frustrating," I said.
My poor husband wanted to share with me how he thought the interview had gone well, and how they'd met with a (young and pretty) real estate agent and toured homes for sale, but my cell phone battery pooped out. Besides, I wasn't in the mood to hear about how fresh and cool the air was there, how comfortable his hotel room was, or that he'd chugged a few beers with his pal and watched the game the night before. It wasn't his fault that through a strange coincidence he was out of town enjoying himself while I was alone with our son dealing with a major disaster, but I didn't have to be happy about it.

Back in my daughter's apartment, I began to suffer from claustrophobia.

I. Wanted. To. Go. Home.

My daughter, too, started to unravel around the edges. Not, as she told me, because her little brother was bugging her, but because my stressful reaction to the situation was dragging her down. The spaz gene is strong in my branch of the family tree, and she, too, has it in spades. I forced myself to wear a mask of Zen.

The news was not encouraging. More press conferences, full of officious good-ol-boys-and-girls who just could not stop spouting thanks and offering congratulations to each other on what an exemplary job they were doing handling this emergency. We were told that my neighborhood should be able to go home in 24 hours, a promise that had already been made 24 hours ago. We learned about the outpouring of support from the unaffected community, and I couldn't help but be thankful that I wasn't sitting in a shelter somewhere, amongst strangers and at the mercy of strangers.

We saw sobering footage of the roaring fires burning out of control and the devastation they caused and continued to cause. Most people left when the evacuation order came out, but some stubborn (and stupid) folks didn't. A few of them died. More of them pulled firefighters from their jobs to take the time to rescue them.

We heard rumors that some of the fires were arson, not a surprise to those of us who've lived here for awhile. When the Santa Ana winds come, the arsonists are never far behind.

My son went to sleep faster that last night, as if even his boundless energy was flagging under the strain of unfamiliar routine. The glow of the television faded as I made myself as comfortable as I could, looking forward to the 7am press conference in the morning, when I hoped the evacuation would be lifted.

It wasn't. In the morning after yet another press conference jam-packed with, "Before I begin, I'd like to thank the blah, blah, blah-blah-blah," I was beyond disappointed when they announced that Rancho Bernardo was still off-limits. I logged onto several websites with fire burn and evacuation maps that showed that my little community, which, although it shares a zip code, technically isn't even Rancho Bernardo, was not under evacuation order.

It was then that I began to doubt I'd ever been evacuated. I got the call, but did I really listen to what the message said? Why didn't any of my neighbors seem to have gotten a call at the same time as me?

My husband flew in and called on my daughter's cell phone. I begged him to go straight home and see if he could get into the area. Then I looked up businesses in my neighborhood and called them to see if anyone answered the phone. No one at the grocery store picked up, but I got an immediate answer at the craft store. I asked the guy if they were open and he responded in the affirmative, leaving out the word "obviously," even though it was in his voice. For good measure, I called the book store.

"Barnes and Noble."

"Hi. I was evacuated and every time I call 2-1-1 they ask for my zip code and tell me I can't come home, but I'm right across the street from you."

"Yeah, I've been hearing that from customers all morning," the guy said. "2-1-1 is not very reliable."

2-1-1 is the official information hotline for this particular disaster, and his words started a slow, furious burn in my stomach.

"How long has the area been open?" I asked through gritted teeth.

"I guess when they opened the 15 freeway last night people just started trickling back. They can't get in a few miles north, but it's starting to look like business as usual here," he said. "I got home this morning and came right into work."

I thanked him and the instant I got off the phone began to shove our new clothes, toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, food and toys into bags. For some reason, the urge to hurry was so great I ran to my truck to move it to a no-park zone, where I could load it up.

"Calm down," my daughter told me.

"I could have gone home yesterday!" I cried. "I might not have even had to leave in the first place!"

My husband called back and told me that he was home. I shot out of my daughter's place like it was, well...on fire.

Other than the heavy smoke hanging in the still air, my apartment complex seemed normal. The first thing my husband told me was that the one neighbor he spoke to said she had not gotten a reverse 9-1-1 call and had stayed throughout. She did tell him that she'd been pretty scared, though. Despite the pitying look in my husband's eyes, I decided to trust myself.

I had been evacuated. The whole ordeal was not the result of my panicked imagination. The majority of maps we'd seen online showed that a vast area, including my neighborhood, had indeed been told to leave. The problem was with the much-lauded reverse 9-1-1 system, which clearly did not alert everyone - could not, in fact, alert those who did not have a land line installed in their homes, because it did not work with cell phones. The problem was compounded by a flawed and overburdened 2-1-1 system, which should not have relied upon zip codes to distinguish neighborhoods. In addition, much of the televised information was woefully outdated. I recall watching the scrolling news at the bottom of the television screen as the newscasters struggled to fill air time with information that would keep their viewers from switching the channel in hopes of finding something they hadn't already heard. The scrolling words said, "BREAKING NEWS!" but it lied. It would have been more truthful to say, "SAME OLD NEWS!" Long after the denizens of areas just south of Rancho Bernardo had been trickling home, the scrolled words still told us it was off-limits.

So now that the fires are almost out and the people are almost all home - those who still have a home, that is - much of the congratulatory back-slapping and never-ending stream of gratitude from those in charge will be replaced by recrimination and accusation from the inconvenienced public. All that the Powers-That-Be can do is compare one emergency to another to see what they might do better next time. The ratio of property loss to loss-of-life is evidence that the evacuations worked. Removing people before they were endangered freed up time for firefighters to attack the fire fronts that would do the most towards stopping the monster from advancing on populated areas.

As for me, I located our safe, our photo albums and our important papers, and I'm now prepared to evacuate.

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