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California burning: Memories from past fire seasons

There, school is dismissed for ‘fire weeks’

Here in the Sauk Valley, the wildfires ripping through Southern California seem so distant. We can’t feel the heat. The smoke doesn’t burn our eyes or mar our horizon line. The ash doesn’t taint the water supply. It’s easy to treat them as we do most other tragedies in the world – understanding them from the safe distance through newspapers and television screens.

For me, it’s different. Having grown up in San Diego, I find it much more visceral.

I recall an evening in October 2007, sitting on a bench, watching the flames as they stretched from the north and ringed their way all the way to the south – during the day only visible by their black plumes of smoke. At night, though, the smoke would disappear and instead be replaced by a reddish-orange glow that lit up our already color-polluted sky.

I was 16, my sister 13, and my dad had driven us up to the war memorial at the top of the mountain where we lived, an area locals call “The Cross” for the towering, modern 29-foot concrete cross that sits at the mountain’s highest point. It’s a popular place to take people visiting from out of town for the 360-degree views it offers of the city, from the ocean in the west, to the mountains in the east and Mexico just to the south.

It was crowded on that night, too, but no one was there to stare at the infinite blue Pacific. Instead, we were looking east in a stunned, communal silence, watching while San Diego burned.

It was the second time my dad had driven us up to watch as fires ravaged our city.

There’s no question in my mind that the first time was worse.

Without even having to look at the numbers, I know. I was 12, and it was October 2003. The taste of ash was thick on my tongue and in my chest, even living near the ocean as we did – almost 20 miles from the nearest fire – ash still rained down on our hair, our cars, and our lawns. It was the closest thing our city had ever seen to snow. Most flakes were small. Some, however, were large. And if you caught one in your outstretched palms, you could sometimes make out what you were holding. Or rather, what the thing you were holding used to be.

Outside my house one day, wearing a bandana around my face in an attempt to filter the air I was breathing, I was standing near our car, waiting for my dad to take us down the hill to pick up some rental movies, since we were pretty much under house arrest for the remainder of the week. As I stood there, watching the silent ash fall, I noticed a flake larger than most I’d seen, and so, like any 12-year-old would, I wanted to catch it. If this was snow, I probably would’ve stuck my tongue out. I cupped my hands, instead.

Delicately, for fear of destroying it, I raised the flake to my face and was able to make out the newsprint, just enough to understand what this piece of burnt carbon had been. When my dad came out, he took a photograph before I leaned down and blew, watching the little bit of paper disintegrate into a million pieces. I don’t think I made a wish.

I remember that the community of 12-year-olds, the one that was far enough away from the actual fires, was particularly excited because the poor air quality – and the fact that many of the homes, churches and schools surrounding us were being used to house evacuees – meant that we were excused from school.

In the Midwest, kids get snow days. We got a fire week.

My sister and I talked about emergency exit strategies, as we’d been taught in school to do if you suddenly noticed your house was on fire.

We’d get in the car; stock it with water, food, and a camera; drive south as fast as we could, sticking near to the water (fire doesn’t like water, we rationalized), until we reached the place where my family’s sailboat was harbored. We’d get on it, and make our way into the middle of the bay, where we would wait for an emergency rescue or just carry on down to Mexico – either way, really.

Four years later, in October 2007, I was 16, and again a massive fire ravaged San Diego to the east and northeast. Once more, we were excused from school.

It’s happening again this week, and even though I’m removed from it now – I’ve moved to Illinois, my parents are actually in the Bay Area for the weekend, and my sister is away at school – I still feel the same knot in my stomach when I look at the video and images, when I see fire rip through streets and neighborhoods familiar to me.

My grandfather and his girlfriend actually live about 3 miles from one of the fires – the Poinsettia Fire that’s ravaging his newly adopted community of Carlsbad.

They haven’t yet been told to evacuate, and the winds should be spreading the flames away from them. But the thing about fire is, you never really know.

Christi Warren is a reporter for Sauk Valley Media. You can reach her at or 800-798-4085, ext. 5521.

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