23. October 2007 · Comments Off on Reprise: Fire Country · Categories: Domestic, General, Local, World

(this is a post I originally wrote in November, 2003 after my parents’ house was burned to the ground in the Cedar/Paradise Mountain fire the month before. Sorry, all the cited links are long-decayed. I pulled the post from my own archive, as we are unable to access the the 2002-2003 blog archive on Moveable Type.

Mom and Dad are presently sitting tight, with a handful of their neighbors, having packed up their vehicles. Their neighborhood is in the evacuation zone, but the fire is well to the south of them, and moving fast towards the west. As of last night no one was making an issue of them leaving, since winds are blowing the fire front past them. Their only risk is of something starting up in the mountains to their east – in which case they will have to scramble. But for now, they are OK.)

I about fell out of my chair laughing, this morning when I read a letter to the editor in “Spectator” from some misinformed schlub who is convinced utterly that everyone in America is either rich and living in a gated community, or poor and living in the ghetto. From a distance, I guess it is perfectly easy to misplace the square miles and miles and miles of communities and suburbs which fit into the comfortably wide area in between those extremes, although the writer claimed to have visited the United States often. It was almost as funny as the columnist for the Vangardia, reported in Iberian Notes ( very last entry for 30 October)who believed all the people burned out of their homes in the recent fires were millionaires living in opulent mansions.

Maybe some of the Scripps Ranch houses may have been McMansion boxes on the hillside, all built out of ticky-tacky grown large, and I do know of one mercifully small housing development near Mom and Dads, but Valley Center, and Julian, and Lake Cuyamaca, and Santa Ysabel and all those other little communities which burned last week aren’t anything like your stereotypical gated suburb. But they were homes, and the loved by the people who lived in them, and most of them were not mansions, their owners are not millionaires.

When you drive east and north of the coast, and the belt of suburbs and towns around the cities of San Diego and Los Angeles you are in the back country, among tawny hills dotted with dark green live oaks, along rocky steams and washes grown with poplar trees, a country quilted with truck farms, and orchards of citrus, persimmons, avocados, apples, or steep mountains grown thickly with pine trees. The sky is nearly always blue, the temperatures almost always mild, summer and winter. It is possible to garden year round, and to live without air conditioning. The hills are full of quail, deer, coyotes and other interesting wild animal life.
Valley Center, part of which was threatened by the Paradise fire last week, is not a neatly contained, contiguous town like Julian, farther back in the higher mountains. Businesses, the schools, the post office, the Catholic church, fire station and community center are scattered along the length of, or clustered around the intersections of Valley Center, Cole Grade, Woods Valley and Lilac Roads, interspersed with truck farms, orchards, a cattle feed lot, a campground, Bates’ Nut Farm, and an extremely fragrant egg hatchery at the intersection where Paradise Mountain Road and the Lake Wohlfurt Road strike off in two directions into the higher hills. A number of properties are Indian reservation lands. Many are still working agricultural properties: avocado or citrus groves, mostly, but some are more of a hobby for owners who commute to San Diego or farther. Although the properties are large, many of the houses are fairly small; some are merely doublewide trailers. Many of the homeowners, like my parents, built their houses themselves. People have horses, cattle, goats and sheep: some of the newer residents are well-off suburbanites, but on the whole, it is more of a blue-collar, working class sort of place.

My parents bought five acres, some distance off Paradise Mountain road when my brothers and sister and I were still at home. In the early 1980ies, they sold the Hilltop House, put everything into storage, and moved into a travel trailer with two dogs and a cat, and set to building their dream house.

They built on a knoll, with a view down into a deep wilderness valley where cattle often graze, looking as tiny as fleas crawling across the distant green meadow, and across that valley to the ranges around Mt. Palomar, clearing away nearly all of the flammable brush around the house, and planting citrus, apple and avocado trees. They had a curving driveway bulldozed up to the site, climbing up the knoll to where Dad would set out a graveled courtyard, between the house, the garage, and Mom’s lath-house. In a little draw, too steep and shaded to plant citrus, they kept some of the native manzanita and live oak, and Mom planted bushel after bushel of daffodil bulbs. The house had a deep verandah on three sides, and a solarium built along the fourth, the side with the view down into the wilderness area. Outside the solarium, Mom grew roses in vast pots and planters, to keep the roots safe from voracious gophers. The house included a studio, where she made the stained glass panels for the solarium.

They had specialists pour the slab, build up the conblock exterior walls, and install the pipes and electricity, but Dad did all the interior walls himself, taping the wallboard, and setting the Saltillo tiles himself. They tiled the roof themselves, and Dad cut all the ornate beam ends for the roof himself. It took them five years to finish it to where they could move in, two more than they estimated, and just a couple of hours to burn.

They had been watching anxiously all Sunday, and by late afternoon it was obvious the fire was coming toward their street. Mom had enough time to secure the animals in the car, to go through the house making decisions over what was replaceable, and what was not. Dad had a camera with film in it, and the presence of mind to take pictures of the interior. Of all their neighbors they have lived in fire country the longest, but even the newest residents are aware of the need to clear native brush around their houses, to keep plantings green and damp as possible. The other houses on their street were spared, as the fire department could bring a truck close enough to protect them until the fire had swept through, but the courtyard at the top of their driveway is not roomy enough to turn a fire truck around. The firemen tell Mom to leave: she says the fire was making that peculiar deep, roaring sound that means it is well along. The fire jumped their driveway and came up the little draw that Mom called the Daffodil Valley, funneling the heat like a chimney, catching the garage, and leaping to the house. I was told that Dad, and some neighbors and the firemen were taking things out of the house until the windows began imploding. Dad stayed with neighbors, helping them secure their house.
They will rebuild, like many others, and like many others, with the help of their friends, neighbors and family. Last Friday, Mom told me that the pastor of their church is planning a workday, with volunteers combing the site for what can be salvaged. Dad wants to rebuild it all, exactly as it was before; Mom wants to change some things. They were luckier than many: they were not caught by surprise in the middle of the night, they are insured, and they have resources. It is a beautiful place to live: people like my parents consider it worth the risk.

(They have rebuilt – and they have made many improvements to make the new house a little more fire-proof, but there’s not much to be done when the fire comes on like a tornado, driven by the Santanna winds, and everything around is drier than old bones.)

Update: 1:PM CST: Heard from my sister – Mom and Dad are still at the house, though very tired and jumpy. There is a new fire which started just east of their location but is burning in a half-circle around them – from this map it looks like it’s going north of them, while the Witch fire continues burning south.

Comments closed.