The phone jangled me awake. It was 4:15 a.m, I think. I knew before I heard the strange male voice, what it was about: "We are evacuating Rancho Bernardo, can you alert the neighbors?"
"Yes. Wait, what?" I was coming out of a two hour sleep. Before I had conked out, about 2:30 a.m., I heard Mayor Sanders and our local Councilman Brian Mainscheimís update on the wildfires closing in around us.
The Mayor barely mentioned at about midnight, "We may have to evacuate other areas, like Rancho Bernardo." What?
I continued to listen until the stations went back to other programming. Then I packed my treasured memories, a few clothes for my husband and I, medicines, and toiletries. My husband would grab our computers, and other necessary electronic chargers, etc. as well as what he could not live without. My daughter would take the babies, her necessities and theirs. We would take all three cars. My focus was on family photo albums, cdís of photos, and videos of my other family when we were children, all I have left of my parents and one brother.
I left my husband Jim asleep. Upstairs, my daughter and her six-month old twins, Lizzie and Joey, slept. Then I slept for two hours, until the call came. My husband was already awake.
I stepped into the hall and faced him in his office, "We have to evacuate, now."
With few words, he mobilized, moving swiftly upstairs to wake Linda. "Donít let her wake the babies till weíre going out the door," I called after him.
I dressed swiftly, grabbed up what I had staged and Jim began loading his truck. I filled my car, tossing in a couple of pillows and blankets at the last minute.
"I have to alert the neighbors," I said, passing him at the door. Iím the Neighborhood Watch Block Captain.
"Rich Rolfson just ran into his house, heís up," my husband said.
I ran straight across the blackened cul de sac, the air thick with smoke, ashes raining down like the first snow of the season. How I wish it were. I pushed through their gate and rang the bell repeatedly, then banged on the door. They responded immediately and I delivered the evacuation message, go to one of the local high schools. I asked Rich to take his side of the street, and alert the neighbors to get out. His neighbor on one side came out, already evacuating with their two small children. We spoke briefly, then ran in opposite directions.
At the next neighbor, Linda and Alan, the gate was locked, so I ran back to Richís house where Iíd left his wife in the doorway, and called in to her to get Linda and Alan on the phone, tell them to get out. She accepted the assignment.
Then I sprinted to the next house. Mark and his mother Mary peered at me from the door.
"You have to evacuate," I said.
"We just got a call, I ran over and told Lillian and Ladka. They were sound asleep, didnít know anything was going on," Mark said.
"I donít think we have much time, you need to go to the high school", I said, then dashed away.
At the next house, one I sold to these homeowners just a few months earlier, I reached over the newly installed gate, unlatched it, and rang the bell. Four startled eyes peered back. I repeated the previous dialogue.
"What about Lillian and Ladka, do they know? Vladimir asked."
"Yes, Mark told them. Hurry," I said.
I skipped Lillianís house since theyíd been told, passed my house as I rounded the cul de sac, to the next neighbors, the Kains. Frightened, they asked where they should go. I told them to go to Mt. Carmel High School. They didnít know where that was. We arranged for them to follow us, then I ran to the next house. Briefly, I thought of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, with the headless horsemanís pounding hoofs coming our way.
At the next house, they had gotten a call, and were preparing to leave. Next door, a woman holding a cell phone answered, trying to find out where to go. I told her what I knew, she thanked me profusely. Next door, a huge, heavy patio umbrella had fallen across the walkway. I had to crawl under and through the shrubs to get to her door - I couldnít move the thing. She flung the door open on the second ring, and I delivered the message.
"I have family, Iíll go to them." I heard her calling her thanks as I climbed back through the umbrella sentry.
At the next house, I had to ring and bang repeatedly. Finally, the wife answered in a frightened voice. She was so upset, she just stood there holding her head. I told her again that she needed to evacuate, and to go get her husband. She wandered back, dazed, and I could hear them debating about what to do. I ran on to the last house. There, the homeowners were loading their own twin baby girls into the car.
I started back up the street and encountered Rich Rolfson. He told me he got everyone but the Ruggieros, though he tried twice. He was going home to call on the phone. I went back to ring and bang on their door. Seniors, with health problems, they were usually home, but may have gotten out early. No answer. I fled back up the cul de sac to make certain Lillian and Ladka were evacuating. She answered and they said they were almost ready to leave.
Back at my house, I ran upstairs to Linda. She had fed and changed the babies, and Jim was loading their essentials into her car. He carried one baby and Linda the other. While Linda installed them in the car, my husband drove on ahead to scout our destination, make sure we could get in. I ran next door and the Kains, who were to follow us, were backing out of their driveway. I was in the lead, with Linda and the babies following, then the Kains. I saw the other neighbors climbing into cars, helping each other. About an hour had passed.
Jim called to say traffic was backed up, and the fire was right behind the huge billowing clouds coming in over our neighborhood like the dust storms of the Great Depression. For the first time I was frightened. I thought we might not manage the half mile to the freeway entrance, before the fire was upon us. All I could think of was those babies. I couldnít veer off and take any of the alternatives I normally would have in heavy traffic, lest I lose Linda and the neighbors. Huge, billowing grey clouds tinged with red, were rolling from the east, over our heads. I thought the condos across the road must be on fire. But we plowed ahead.
The procession, while slow, was steady and organized, and we made it to the freeway. I clung to the right lane, so we could stay together. I knew they were more frightened than I was. I had to stay calm. I let people pass me, so they did not come between us. I watched the Kains in the rear view mirror, they were with us. I found out later that he does not drive at night because he canít see. She no longer drives at all.
When we traversed the five, snakey miles or so to the high school, we felt like we had docked our boat in a safe harbor. We began to unfold, relax, and listen to the radio, drink the proffered water. After about half hour, we had to evacuate again. We had to go about twenty miles south to Qualcomm Stadium where there was no fire, and no smoke: Better for the babies, safer.
Again, my husband dashed ahead as reconnaissance, and we three crept along the highway. Jim kept calling giving me updates. We had debated about the best route. I agreed to go his way, though it was longer Ė each route left us on a different side of the road, his on the side of the entrance.
Everyone passed us in a hurry. At the stadium, Jim stood in the bed of his pickup truck so we could see him as we arrived at the parking lot. We hiked in, and set up camp in the bleachers with the babies, faces smudged with soot, installed in the porta crib, in front of the monitors, surrounded by evacuees. The air was clean, we were safe.
At first, the emphasis was on orderly parking and entrance to the stadium. Blessedly, we breathed our first relatively fresh air in 24 hours. There was water available immediately, and in a short while, hotdogs resurrected from somewhere. Funny how people need to eat all the time during a stressful time like this, I guess itís the only thing they can do to help themselves.
We moved into a handicap seating area, and settled in for a long day. Two TV monitors gave us a steady stream of information about the fireís progress, and we saw how lucky we were to have gotten ahead of it: Rancho Bernardo was in flames. As a Realtor, I saw the street where one of my listings stood, burning all around. The fire must have started along the freeway, gobbled up the hillside, to gobble up five homes sitting, waiting for to fuel, at the ridge of Eastview. In the other direction, historic Battle mountain was stripped and blackened, but the steel white cross that was a landmark remained.
Eight lanes on the other side of the freeway, homes were burning with rapidity along Valaderes: Ten homes, gone in an instant as fireman chased them with axes and hoses. Hurricane force winds made air drops impossible, and valiant men on foot just could not keep up. Hopping across four lanes of West Bernardo Drive, fire wicked up Aguamiel and took out about twenty homes, while we gaped from our concrete haven.
All around us, Rancho Bernardo residents asked and answered with what scraps of information they could glean. Someone called my daughter and told her of a website where they were listing the streets burned, and my husband and another woman pulled the site up on their Blackberry. Iíll never disparage technology again, it was our lifeline. But the real heroes here were the people, telling each other there was food, drinks, blankets being handed out, where the fire was, giving comfort. Familiar faces came and went, surreal to see so far from home.
My neighbors the Kains, had settled on the floor above then sought us out to join them, as there were tables and chairs, even sofas. My husband Jim, went ahead to scout a spot, before we gave up our cushy bleacher seats with space for the crib. He summoned us by cell phone with instructions how to get up there. We passed the beginnings of tent city, as sleeping bags, blankets, pillows were already marking territory.
I pushed the babies in the twin stroller, while Linda wheeled the crib full of the baby gear, and we wound our way up the spiral ramp to the Club level. There was a room that had been allocated to seniors from the Remington Club Retirement Home, and we passed it by to set up camp in the concourse in front of a TV monitor, with a restroom nearby for changing the babies. We parked the baby bed, strung some chairs together and stayed there for three days, while Jim continued reconnaissance down below.
As the day wore on and it became clear we were going nowhere, we retrieved comforters, pillows, and clothing bags from the car, for ourselves. With no outlets and no attention for it, we did not set up our laptops, just took care of the babies and watched the news. A steady stream of volunteers came through from various churches and other organizations. They offered water, food, baby supplies, one even went and found a high chair and baby seat, so we did not have to feed the infants sitting on our laps. That made it a lot tidier for our limited clothing supply. We did not take anything we did not need, as we brought enough baby food, diapers, and baby wipes, preferring to leave it for evacuees who did not come away prepared. As night drew on, we were exhausted, and SDSU students came through with Alumni blankets. These we took, just in case Ė boy, how lucky was that? As we were on the concourse, there was a wind shield that went about three quarters up, but cold night air streamed in over the top.
As the concourse was made of concrete and steel, we felt very safe from fire. We knew, if flames descended upon us, we could go down to the verdant field, surrounded by sprinklers, for the optimum safety. Though insular, the concrete retained the cold night air, and we hunkered down under increasing stacks of comforters and blankets which arrived with a legion of volunteers.
Steel framed cots were brought in by the Army, but they were allocated to the seniors, rightfully so. Eventually, reinforcements arrived Ė 25,000 more cots. We each got one, and they even set them up. Itís amazing how territorial we become. We copied the evacuees who had arrived after us, and put chairs at the foot of each cot, to form a perimeter. We were paranoid about the safety of the babies, while we slept surrounded by 10,000 strangers. My husband sat up in a chair, under a comforter, and guarded the babies all night while we slept fitfully. I relieved him at dawn, and we all shared their care throughout the day.
The cheerful babies, blissful in their ignorance, were a sort of balm to passersby. Everyone stopped for a smile and a giggle, and the babies produced an endless stream of giggles, chortles, smiles, all the blessings of six month olds. Even the novelty that there were two of them, a boy and a girl, provided extra fun.
Next to us, in the club room, were the one hundred or so seniors I mentioned. Half of them had been ferried down to the other end of the concourse to a similar enclave. I marveled at the patient attention they received, particularly since they were so disoriented and fretful. Often, we would direct them, or guide them back from the restrooms, when they looked bewildered or said, "I donít know how to get back." A steady stream of press tried to take their photos, hopefully looking pathetic, but we too sent them packing: these seniors, aged from seventies to one hundred, had enough to cope with.
I was particularly impressed with one woman, Donna Howat, who seemed to be directing the group. She apparently never slept. Iíd see her wrapped in a blanket, walking the quarter mile or so between encampments, to check on her charges, solve problems, direct assistants, get supplies, and who knows what all. She grew weary looking, but never stopped, never got grouchy. Another of the many heroes.
Each morning, I left the nest for the theatre below. Press arrived with increasing frequency. First the locals, then CNN and major networks, international reporters, even cubbies going for their Journalism degree. The Border Patrol provided lists of homes burned, every insurance company was there, Farmers cooking pancakes, eggs, sausage, hot dogs, hamburgers. George Plesciaís office, everyone set up booths like a street fair, to provide information. The telecommunications companies provided cell phone recharging, and internet access, even laptops to check what was going on. By the third day, they had showers set up, but we were ready to leave by then.
Entertainers arrived from the beginning: guitar playing singers, clowns, balloon twisters, break dancers, face painters. The churches provided play areas for babies and children, with tons of toys, even baby swings, bubbles, crayons, paints. Boy, did those parents appreciate that.
The population expanded from the initial bewildered and bedraggled evacuees, to include some freeloaders, and even scamsters by day three. I saw a woman selling the items sheíd gotten free inside, to a mother with children camped in the parking lot. Some people heard there was a party, like Woodstock, so they came. Thatís when we knew it was time to go. My husband the scout left in the morning to start probing the perimeter, to see if there was any way we could get into our neighborhood, Westwood. Armed National Guardsmen and police blocked every entry, and warned that there were still gas leaks and hot spots. Jim fed us back live reports, with increasing frequency.
Linda and I, with the babies, hung back with no safer harbor to go to. At noon, the Mayor, Senators, Councilman, County Supervisor, everyone was there to talk about what the city was doing, but no word on our community. I blocked the departure of the County Supervisor, and put the question specifically to him. He was very nice and sincerely advised that we stay put until we were specifically told to go back.
At two oíclock, I listened to the Mayor and City Councilman on TV, broadcasting from Westwood. There were conflicting reports about the quadrant our community was in, being open on the government website. We fit in those co-ordinates, except our specific community was excluded. A local radio station was broadcasting from the stadium, so I asked the reporter to resolve the difference in what she was telling the public right in front of me, and what I just heard our Councilman say minutes earlier. In the end, she too grew as frustrated as I. I knew I had to get out of there.
I called Linda from the growing circus below, told her I was coming up, to get the babies fed and changed, and we were leaving. Minutes later, I walked up, and a strange woman, hopefully well-intentioned, was holding Joey. She had heard about all the trouble and decided to come up, see if she could help. Slightly paranoid, I took Joey from her and changed him. I laid him down, billing and cooing, on a comforter while I made him a bottle, and she went and picked him up. I handed her a bottle while Linda tended to Lizzie right next to her. I packed all of our stuff in minutes, leaving everything they had provided for our use, to others in need. I donít know why, maybe I was just worn out, but I felt ill at ease, like this woman could run away into the crowd of what was now about 20,000 people, with Joey. Too much Law and Order, I guess.
The woman begged to help us out with the babies, but I refused staunchly. I grabbed one of the passing church volunteers, a big strapping fellow, and gave him the gear. Linda wheeled the babies, I carried pillows and bags we brought in. We said goodbye to the Kains in the club room, promising to call as soon as Westwood opened. Then out to the cars, covered in ash, which had sat there for three days. Lindaís mother had been reinstated in her house in the next town from us, Escondido, and it was decided that she would take the babies there. My husband, worn out from his all night vigil guarding the babies, went to the home of friends to shower, change, and rest. I had to see our neighborhood, my house.
I was never so glad to leave anywhere, and never so grateful. I canít say enough about the Qualcomm Stadium and the City, the volunteers, the church groups, the businesses who donated an ocean of comforting supplies. Even some of the Chargers, 40 of whom reputedly lost their homes, came through to give comfort. One was Clinton Hart Ė what a sweetheart!
When I arrived at Westwood, I experienced the same blockades. I parked along the road where I could at least look over the block wall and see my house, which I knew from a neighbor who visited earlier, had survived. Remarkably, I got out of the car just as that same neighbor, alighted from theirs. We all hugged and he told me where to look to see my house. I had to climb on the transformer box because I was too short, and there it was. There was the block we had abandoned in the dead of night, where I had lived for over twenty five years, and raised my children. Tomorrow, when we were allowed back in, I would go to the crisis center and volunteer to help those who were not as lucky.
In the end, the homes burned in our community are estimated to be about 300, in the county, about 1500.