I recently had the eye-opening experience of interviewing my good friend Jarrett for a blog post. It was a conversational interview of sorts but entirely educational. His family and house, fortunately, had narrowly escaped the Witch Creek fires in San Diego. It was so narrow, in fact, that the fires had actually reached no closer than the fence surrounding his house before the firefighters were able to stop the advancement. Jarrett details the experience of packing and moving themselves and the most important of his family’s belongings in the largest peacetime movement of Americans since the civil war.
*e: Hi Jarrett, thanks so much for doing this interview. It’s actually my first interview in the blog so I’m quite honored to be given the opportunity. So you live in Los Angeles–close to me, actually–and your parents live in San Diego. Did you go down to San Diego as a result of the fires to help your parents or were you already down there for another reason before they started?
J: No, I went down to SD on Friday for my cousin’s 50th birthday party, which was on Saturday. I was down there for the party and I even made a trip up to LA on Sunday to drop off a bed for me to sleep on. But I decided to make it a round trip so I could help pick up another bed from Yorba Linda and the winds were just nuts that night.
*e: I bet. How did you know how strong the winds were, from personal experience?
J: When we were loading the beds, the wind was strong enough to almost knock us both over while holding onto a huge ass bed. We ended up getting home really late on Sunday night/Monday morning and I ended up staying up because the winds were so strong. The winds were beating the crap out of the house and we had a canopy outside the house that kept banging into the house. And, eventually the winds were blowing strong enough that it fell apart and the metal was getting bent and it woke up my dad and me. So, we went outside to start taking it apart so it wouldn’t blow away.
*e: So the winds were pretty major. At what point were you made aware of the fires and their vicinity to your parents’ home?
J: While we were out there we saw flames on the hills a couple miles away and my dad told me we should start packing up. Before we went to sleep, our neighbors called us to say they were going to pack up just in case because they heard the fires were nearby and blowing in from Julian/Ramona.
*e: What did your family then decide to do?
J: I went to go wake up my mom at like 5am and told her to start packing stuff up. It was a bit weird about what we all considered important at this point because my dad continued to take down the tarp and canopy outside. And, my mom started to take down paintings that my grandfather had made. There’s a ton of them where they probably wouldn’t all fit in the car and I started packing water and clothes and flashlights.
*e: I’m sure there was a lot of bewilderment and confusion.
J: Yeah. Luckily we saw it early and had plenty of time to pack because [from] packing just photo albums and paintings, our van and my dad’s avalon [was] full. I made calls to my brothers and to my high school friends who still had family in the area.
*e: About how many hours did you spend packing?
J: I think maybe 3-4 hours, so we had a fair amount of time. The sun started coming up while we were still packing and the smoke started coming in thick but we couldn’t see the flames anymore.
*e: What time was this, approximately?
J: About 7am.
*e: That’s crazy. What about your neighbors? Did you receive any of those reverse-911 calls? [Reverse-911 calls are phone calls from people working for the city, used to tell people to evacuate their homes.]
J: We found out [the neighbors] left at 5am after the fact. Nah, we never did. We had the news on the radio while we were packing to keep up on the fire and they had said it was coming out of the north and already in Rancho Bernardo by 5am when we started [packing] and they had a mandatory evacuation area for anyone at Lake Poway Road and north [of that], which is only 2 streets up from us.
*e: How close is Rancho Bernardo to you?
J: It’s about a half mile to a mile away.
*e: Oh, wow.
J: We were pretty close, so we thought it best that we leave. A little back story too for this is that the Cedar Fires [in 2003] came really close too, but on the other side of the house. We could see the flames from our house that time too but we didn’t evacuate for that one.
*e: So your family and your neighbors are certainly no strangers to fires.
J: Fires happen in our area a lot; at least every 2-3 years we have fires. But never really that bad
and it’s rare that any houses are lost. So we weren’t super worried about this fire cus it seemed like just a bad fire, in comparison.
*e: So they usually stay in the brushes or the trees.
J: Yeah, the area is mostly low lying brush. So we weren’t super worried but figured we should pack just in case. By the time my parents were ready to go it was about 7:30 or 8am. We went to my brother’s fiance’s place that’s also in Poway. It’s in the southwest end of Poway with our house being in the north.
*e: You stayed there for the duration of the fires? You didn’t have to move?
J: We went over there and I crashed for a bit but when I woke up they had expanded the mandatory evacuation areas. So we started packing up Catherine’s (Jarrett’s brother’s fiance) stuff. And we decided to move down to my brothers’ condo downtown [San Diego]. On the news, they said they were making Scripps Ranch a mandatory evacuation area. We thought it best we move before the fire surrounds the area. So we drive down at about 3pm.
*e: You and your family had essentially done all this moving on one day, Monday, correct?
J: Yeah all this was on Monday.
J: After seeing our street on the news, we decided to leave the [Downtown San Diego] condo because my dad was saying “I don’t want to watch our house burn down; let’s go eat.” Surprisingly, my parents were in pretty good spirits. My dad’s joking around saying that he always wanted another kitchen.
*e: I’ve never met your parents but I think I love them. Amazing that your Dad had a sense of humor through all of this.
J: Hah yeah they’re really quirky but I love them still. It’s funny because when we were packing, my dad and mom both packed their dancing shoes, and my dad packed his Halloween costume.
J: I think my mom was kinda mad at him last year because he bought them a matching costume. Last year, he bought a costume for himself as a gladiator. It was a full armor thing with sword and headdress and everything, and my mom was like “Why didn’t you buy me a costume?” They do this ballroom dancing thing, so last year my mom was a gypsy dancing with my dad the gladiator. This year, he bought them both a costume but this time he got a medieval traveler costume and bought my mom a barmaid-wench costume. I think she got mad at him. So, we were joking that she left the costume outside for the fire to get.
*e: Haha, she didn’t want to be a wench. That is awesome.
J: So we left for dinner and got T.G.I. Friday’s downtown.
*e: How were everyone’s spirits?
J: Everyone was pretty okay about it. I was pretty confident the house was okay because at the bottom of our street is the high school, which they just renovated.
*e: Oh I see, so you mean they would do everything to protect that?
J: I imagine the city pushed for extra reinforcements to be sent to our neighborhood so it wouldn’t reach there. Also, the fire dept was using the high school as a launching point for the firefighting in the area. I wasn’t too worried. But, when our uncle sent the photo of the firefighter on the deck of the house, I was like, “Holy shit!” We instantly recognized that house as our neighbor two houses up. He saw it in the L.A. Times and had it listed as being on Sandhill Road, where we lived.
J: I crashed after we got home that night from T.G.I.F. because I hadn’t slept more than 3 hours. The next morning we started searching online for pics of our street and came across those other two photos. We knew they were on our street but weren’t sure which house it was. We were guessing 3 different neighbors but it ended up being the house just up the hill from us. It’s one house down from where the other photo came from. If you look in the photo where the firefighter is carrying the hoses, our yard is on the left side just beyond the fence and fire. We didn’t know this till after we got home.
*e: Wow. So how did you spend your time in downtown San Diego? Did you stay inside and watch for developments?
J: We couldn’t spend the whole day inside so we decided to walk out to downtown and get something to eat and later went shopping, which was really weird because downtown was still operating even though a couple of miles away, there’s a couple hundred if not thousands of people sitting in Qualcomm Stadium or in some other shelter. Some of the shops were closed of course but a good number were still open. My dad and I even went to go see “30 Days of Night” because he wanted to see something that wouldn’t put him to sleep. Thinking about it, it’s important to keep your spirits up, but it’s really surreal to try to keep doing normal things when in the back of your mind your house may be burning down.
*e: I can’t imagine.
J: So we go home afterwards and cook in the condo and continue watching the news and eventually change the station to some normal programming, which had been restored. The day before all the stations were turned to news for the whole day and the news starts to repeat itself over and over. My parents even went online to watch the episode of dancing with the stars that they missed.
*e: That must’ve been depressing and annoying seeing the news recycle over and over like that.
J: Yeah, some of the news casters started getting on our nerves. You could tell that a lot of them were trying for their Emmy or whatever award they get and were trying to get the shots where they’re standing right next to the blaze and capitalizing on the whole disaster. We just got sick of it.
*e: Did you see footage of people in shelters or at Qualcomm?
J: It was kinda crazy seeing stuff about the shelter at the stadium because people were playing music and there were clowns on stilts and people apparently were giving free massages and acupuncture. It seriously looked like a huge party going on down there. I read this after the fact but someone wrote “Nobody Does Disasters Like California.” During Katrina, nobody would be getting a massage unless it was at gun point.
*e: How did you and your family stay connected to your loved ones?
J: During this whole time we’re downtown, we’re calling and getting calls from friends in the area and seeing how they’re doing. We even got calls from some relatives in China we never hear from asking if we’re okay. By this time 500,000 people had been evacuated and I guess it’s international news now.
*e: How long were you waiting around?
J: The next day [Wednesday], we found out we were able to go back to our area, so we repacked the things we brought up to the condo and drove back just before noon.and we drove back up to poway not really knowing what to expect. I was still pretty confident that the house was still there. We didn’t see it on the burnt list and logic says that they had to protect the high school and we saw the firefighters on our street as the fires were descending on our neighborhood. But, there was still a doubt and apprehension saying, “What if?”
*e: Right. My heart would’ve been pounding if I were approaching my own house to see if it had burned!
J: It was strange, though, because as we got closer and closer to our house we still saw no real evidence of anything being burnt. During the Cedar Fire in 2003, we saw pretty quickly charred hillsides around Poway. But this time around the trees were still green along Espola, which leads up to our street. It’s the major street that goes by the high school and connects that area of Poway. When we turn up our street, the houses at the bottom are still standing and everything’s still green and as I’m driving up, all the possibilities are running through my head about what could happen, and they’re all narrowing down as I drive up the hill. When we get up there the house is still there and everything looks normal and I’m like, “What the hell?” We park the cars and I head straight to the backyard and see that the fire came right up to the corner of our yard.
*e: That’s friggin’ crazy, Jarrett.
J: On my bro’s page you can see that little corner of fence that the fire made it thru into our neighbor’s yard and that’s as far as it went and you can see what’s left of the deck after that fireman was there fighting it. It was crazy how close disaster came to our house.
*e: I’ll say.
J: Actually, the winds probably did more damage than the fires themselves. Practically all the fruit was blown off of our trees and some of our trees were completely bare of leaves. But, you could see how close the fire got.
*e: Were the winds dead by the time you got there?
J: The winds were pretty much gone when we got home. Some of the plants by the house which are a good 50 yards from the corner of the yard were all whithered from the heat and even in the patio which doesn’t even face that side of the yard. A lot of the leaves were whithered and looked like they were directly in the fire but everything was okay in the end and it was so surreal to think we went through so much and come back and see nothing happened.
J: It’s like living in a sitcom where nothing really happens.
*e: Haha, but not so comedic, though, huh?
J: I guess the bright side of this is that it’s gonna be another 10 yrs before there’ll be enough for it to catch on fire again but yeah that’s pretty much it.
*e: How do you figure, 10 yrs? Is there not enough to catch on fire after this?
J: Yeah, the whole hillside behind us is flattened and there’s zero growth there and it’s gonna be long time before anything substantial will grow back.
*e: I see. Well, Jarrett. Thanks so much for sharing your story with me. I’m so glad you and your loved ones are okay as well as even your house. That was definitely a close call–the most fortunate thing in all of this, I think, is that the loss of life was minimized despite all the damage the fires caused everywhere.
J: Thanks, Esther!