Desert Living Series Wildfires and the Santa Ana Winds
By L. Bremner
September is National Preparedness month for natural disasters, including wildfires, floods and earthquakes. Folks who live in rural areas become very alert in September and October. They watch the news coverage daily, looking for weather reports and signs that fire conditions have changed from dangerous to VERY dangerous.
Santa Ana winds are one of the main ingredients that fuel wildfires in Southern California and in northern Baja California. Santa Ana winds are extremely dry and originate inland. Wind speeds often exceed 40 mph and can be hot or cold. The gusts are often double the average wind speed. Coupled with high temperatures and a dry landscape, the Santa Ana winds have stoked the largest and most deadly wildfires in Southern California.
The winds are seasonal and typically occur from October through March. However, a dry summer with little to no rain creates conditions in the fall that make Santa Ana winds occurring then the most dangerous of all. The westward winds were named after Santa Ana Canyon where the winds blow strong, but they occur throughout Southern California.
Historical impact of the Santa Ana Winds . . .
“The Santa Ana winds have contributed to some of the largest wildfires including the Cedar Fire, Laguna Fire, Old Fire, Esperanza Fire, Santiago Canyon Fire of 1889 and the Witch Fire. October ’07 was a memorable year for major wildfires. The Santa Anas were behind the October ’07 fires in Escondido, Malibu, Rainbow, San Marcos, Carlsbad, Rando Bernardo, Poway and in San Bernadino, San Diego and Los Angeles. The November ’08 California fires were also heightened by Santa Ana winds. “(Wikipedia.org)
A personal perspective
Included below is an article about my own personal experience during the Witch Creek Fire that started on Oct. 21 ’07 near Santa Ysabel. There were multiple fires burning in San Diego during this time. More than 500,000 people were ordered to evacuate their homes. There were 15 deaths and 2,820 buildings, including many homes, were destroyed. This story was written after the fire in Sept. 2009.
What I Lost . . . What I found
Witch Creek fire: Fourth-largest in California history at 197,990 acres; 1,650 structures; two deaths. Began in October 2007.
My Location During The Fire: Poway, CA in the rural areas near Escondido and Ramona. The two deaths in the Witch Creek Fire were neighbors who were sleeping when the fire engulfed their homes. I didn’t know them personally, but they lived down the road from me.
The boxes seemed a little heavier this time. It was the fifth time I had moved since I lost my home to the Witch Creek Fire. After unpacking for several hours I discovered I only had four or five more to unpack. How had I accumulated so much stuff in so little time?
Nine months have passed since I fled from my home in the early morning hours of Oct. 22nd. As I sifted through my new things, I remember the night clearly. I was sitting in my Jeep at the end of the driveway mesmerized by the scene in front of me. The flames from the Witch Creek Fire were rapidly approaching my family’s ranch where I had lived for the past 13 years. It was fueled by the sage-covered hillside and propelled by the 70 mile-an-hour Santa Ana winds.
The firemen alerted us to evacuate immediately. The fire was moving so fast they were doing what they could just to save lives. The fire had jumped to our neighborhood after a transformer exploded less than a mile away. It happened so fast that the authorities didn’t have time to initiate reverse 911 calls to our area.
The fire was too big and was moving too fast to fight. Everyone in the area was ordered to evacuate. I climbed into my Jeep, where I had packed a few valuables and a basket of clothes. As I drove down the mountain I wondered what would be left when I returned. My parents and one other tenant, who also lived on the ranch property, evacuated with me. We all headed to a hotel about 7 or 8 miles from our homes only to be evacuated again at 5:45 AM. An example of how fast a fire can travel with 70 mph winds!
I was alone when I received the news a few days later. My house had burned to the ground. A neighbor had called to tell us what we lost. They had stayed at the neighboring ranch during the fire and had access to our property on foot. We lost three out of four houses and our family’s business, which was located in a barn structure on the ranch. The only structure still standing on the property was my parents’ 1947-built, wood-sided ranch house. Why was their home still standing while four other structures near it burned to the ground? There was hope.
Today I think back to that morning, remembering how it felt to have my life change so quickly. It was as if we were playing a game of poker. I was dealt a hand of cards and I had to play it out. I had lost my home, everything in it and our family business. There was no going back or asking for a reshuffle. While our losses were not our choice, how we chose to deal with them was in our control.
It was with this attitude that we moved forward and sifted through the ashes. What we found was our strength, our community and the most valuable thing of all, generosity. In a way the fire was a gift. It lifted up the curtains we had drawn so tightly around us. The fire burned down the hedges that had grown up between our property and our neighbor’s properties. We could now see everything. Our land had been stripped barren, leaving us all exposed and vulnerable. It drew our community closer together. We shared a common tragedy. Doors began to open, invitations to neighborhood parties arrived and help was always there when you needed it.
During our first visit to our property after the fire, our neighbor Mike, who shares our east boundary came down the hill in his tractor with a cooler filled with ice and beverages. He offered us something to drink. Mike told us how he fought the fire with his water truck, equipped from head to toe in fire gear. At least he was prepared to stay for the fight! Mike did succeed in saving his home and I do believe he saved my parents’ home as well. He recounted what happened that night and the few days that followed. It was all a blur to him. Mike saw my house go up in flames, and he watched our office/barn and the other structures burn too. He couldn’t quite find the words to describe it. The sadness in his eyes told me of the vision he saw. I said “spectacular in a bad way?” He just shook his head in agreement.
I hardly recognized the land where I had lived for so many years. It looked like a war zone. The smoke smoldered in the burned-out stumps, everything was black and gray including the sky. The smoke hung thick in the air and the pungent smell of ash overwhelmed me as I walked around the property. It looked so different, so unreal. I saw the spot where my house once stood and all I could do was stop and stare. It was gone, just a pile of gray dust and steel frames remained . . . evidence of what used to be there.
My feet became warm as the heat from debris on the ground penetrated my soles. I walked into the area that used to be my office. There was a burned out file cabinet filled with white dust. I saw the wing of one of my angel statues sticking out from behind the remains of what used to be my desk. The angel was still intact. Unbelievable. How did it survive, when nothing else did? I placed the angel on top of one of the cabinets and continued to dig through the ash and debris.
Mattress springs marked each bedroom and I found my way into mine. Images of what used to be flashed through my mind as if a movie were playing. My eyes were drawn again to another pile of white dust under my charred mattress springs. Those were my journals. I had tucked them safely away under my bed and had forgotten about them like so many other things.
After a few hours of sifting I realized that there wasn’t anything here to take away with me. There were pieces of things, just stuff really. When I left that day all I took with me were my memories, securely intact. Under my arm I carried the angel and the hope that something good would come from this experience.
The two-year anniversary of the Witch Creek fire is about a month away. As I look back over the past two years I can only see the good things that came after the fire. One big change was the reorganization of our family e-commerce business after the fire. When the fire took out our office, inventory and phone service we had no choice but to move part of our business to a new location. Our business is an online publication with a store. The store required space for inventory and for shipping orders. My brother already had an office set up to house and ship products in the Los Angeles area for his own online business, so we passed on that part of the business over to him.
It was like a wish had been granted for me. No more shipping orders! I liked that. My new job description was to focus my time and energy on developing content for our website, which is the part of the business that I enjoy the most.
With the old ball and chain of the store removed, I became totally virtual. I could do my new job from any city as long as I had Internet access. This led to another wish being granted for me . . . the ability live in a new area where I could afford to buy my own house. So I moved to the desert.
Cochella Valley is now my home. I moved to the area in July ‘08. The desert has been my winter playground for the past 10 years, so the move was not a big shock. With a built in network of friends already here, I was excited to make the move. Ironically, our online publication (desertusa.com) is an outdoor recreation and education website about the desert regions of the American Southwest. Now that I live in the desert I have many more things to write about and I’m less than an hour away from two big desert parks.
After the fire, there were many decisions that I had to make in order to build a new life for myself. Moving to a new city, buying a home, a change in my job and the opportunity to change many other things. Every choice I made was a puzzle piece that fit perfectly with the next to create the picture that I had in my mind of how I wanted my life to be. This picture had been in the makings for several years before the fire. The fire was divine intervention. It was the push forward that I needed to make change happen in my life.
While looking back and remembering the fire, I realize now that I really didn’t lose anything at all. Some material things may have been destroyed, but what I found after the fire was a community of helping hands and the strength to move forward.
I realize that most people did not have such a positive experience. The fire was a devastating experience for most individuals and families. Change is not easy and losing everything means starting over. My thoughts and prayers are with the families of the 15 people who died during the fires in San Diego.