California Wildfires – an OBcean’s Perspective

by on December 19, 2018 · 3 comments

in California, Ocean Beach

Part 1

by Bob Edwards

If you have lived in California for any length of time you have probably had your life touched by wildfires. Possibly you lost your own home or you know someone who did.  You could have contributed money, food, or clothes to a fellow worker or community member who was affected by a fire. Certainly when the Santa Ana blows and smoke fills the air you have experienced ash landing on your car, a blood red sunset, or perhaps cancelled school events or exercise classes.

Bel-Air Fire, 1961

I have lived in California for over sixty years. My first experience of a wildfire was in 1961, watching from my childhood home in Northridge as the Bel Air Fire burned in the Santa Monica Mountains. It was a huge deal because numerous celebrities (Burt Lancaster!  Zsa Zsa Gabor!) lost their homes and because it was so visible from all over Los Angeles.

Richard Nixon had his photo taken watering down his Bel-Air roof. Great PR!

The Bel Air Fire prompted some of the first laws directed at limiting wildfire damage, for example laws banning wood shingle roofs and mandating brush clearance.

When I moved to San Diego in 1970 to start my freshman year at San Diego State, I was greeted that month by the Laguna Fire aka the Kitchen Creek Fire.

The fire broke out in the Lagunas near Sunrise Highway with a blaze started by downed power lines and fanned by Santa Ana winds. In 24 hours it burned 30 miles to the borders of  El Cajon and Spring Valley causing major damage in Harbison Canyon and Crest. The fire destroyed almost 400 homes and killed 8 people. At the time it was the second biggest fire in California history.  Now it doesn’t even make the top ten.

In the late 1970s I left Ocean Beach for a twelve year period that found me in Shasta County where I joined the “back to the land” movement and built an isolated off-the-grid home.

Oakland Hills aftermath

During that time I remember visiting friends in San Francisco and the East Bay who had stories of the Oakland Hills conflagration (aka The Tunnel Fire) of 1991 that destroyed almost 3,000 homes and killed 25 people.

My San Francisco friends reported finding singed but intact pages from books that had been blown high into the atmosphere by the heat and flames and then traveled miles across the Bay, landing in their yard near the Mission District.

Then, in 1992, came the first wildfire that directly impacted me. My wife and I had finished building our home down a nine mile dirt road in a densely forested valley. We commuted to our day jobs in the county seat of Redding, but saw a need for healthcare in our underserved rural area so we joined some other locals and helped found a community clinic in the small town of Round Mountain.

Hill Country Community Clinic in Round Mountain, before the fire.

Built with money raised from lasagna dinners, donations, and a few grants from charities, this clinic, now called the Hill Country Health and Wellness Center, was the only source of medical care within 30 miles and quickly became a local institution and source of community pride.

On August 20, 1992 I was at the clinic when an arson-caused wildfire broke out about five miles away. From the clinic’s parking lot, our administrator and I stared at the distant flames and plume of smoke.

After the fire.

We decided it would be a good idea to start loading up the medical records and evacuate the staff. There was a sense of urgency but the fire seemed so far away, we didn’t realize that every moment counted.  As the staff began putting the records into their cars and prepared to leave, I made the dusty 45 minute drive to my home to set up some sprinklers, just in case. Little did I know that in a couple hours, the clinic would be burned to the ground. Although five miles away seemed like a long distance for a fire to travel, when the wind is blowing 15 to 20 MPH, well, you can do the math.

I spent the afternoon securing our home, warily watching as the smoke to the south assumed a towering mushroom cloud form. It was impossible to tell if the fire was 10 miles or a half mile away from our home. I waited for my wife and son to return from Redding where she had spent the day working while my son attended school. They still hadn’t arrived at 8 PM so I decided to drive to town and, in those pre-cell phone days, see if I could somehow locate my family. I figured they might have gone to a friend’s home or to an evacuation center.

“The Fountain Fire” in Shasta County

As I made the drive back towards civilization, things got smokier and smokier as I navigated the twisting, narrow dirt road.  It was really scary because the road has no barriers and a two hundred foot drop-off down to the Pit River and I could barely see in front of me.  As I left the river canyon and drove into the woods beyond the river, there was less smoke. Then I hit an area that the fire had burned through. Whole meadows were blackened. Oak trees were completely denuded of leaves and smaller branches leaving only charred trunks.  Pines and doug-firs were standing but all their greenery had burned off and the trunks glowed like giant red hot needles.

I reached the highway and discovered that much of the town of Round Mountain was destroyed. As I drove into the clinic parking lot my headlights illuminated an empty space where the building had stood. All gone except for ash, fused glass, and twisted and partially melted wheelchairs. I kept driving and discovered several classrooms at the local grade school had burned. Our old childcare provider’s home was just a foundation and chimney.

Eventually I made it past the road blocks that the CHP and County sheriffs were using to turn back civilians and drove on to Redding. I found a pay phone and called around and eventually was reunited with my family. It was four days before we were allowed back into the burn area. While waiting to return home, we stayed at a motel where fire crews were doing R and R between shifts fighting the blaze.  At one point we met two fire fighters who told us they had been in the area where our home was and that “the whole valley is gone”. We were filled with grief. All of our hard work ruined in a day’s time.

When the evacuations were lifted and we finally were able to drive back into our little valley we discovered that the fire had not burned that far. Our home was safe. My wife observed that fighting a fire is like fighting a war. Communication from the frontlines is often not accurate and even the participants often don’t know what’s happening just a short distance away. We had been freaking out about losing our home when the fire never got within four miles of it.

Many people’s homes were not spared by the blaze. Dubbed “The Fountain Fire” it eventually burned 100 square miles (almost 94,000 acres) and destroyed over 300 structures including the homes of several friends. One of our clinic staff members drove to her home near where the fire was raging. With flames approaching, she and her husband moved photos, important papers, and valued items to their car. As they were moving the last load, they discovered the car had caught fire and all their valuables went up in smoke. They had to grab their kids and wait out the flames in a small pond on their property as the fire burned around them. And then, irony of ironies, their house did not burn! If only they hadn’t moved their stuff…

The Clinic today.

The fire decimated the community. Younger people recovered pretty quickly and started over. Our clinic was insured and was rebuilt better than ever and continues to thrive to this day. The old timers (some of them younger than I am now!) who lost homes were hit the hardest. You could see them hanging out at the local community center getting meals and clothing provided by the Red Cross, vacant eyed and mostly stoic with the occasional person breaking down in tears. Some people stayed with friends, others lived in trailers or cars. Many had to move away with no money or inclination to rebuild in a burn area.

A couple years later, in the mid-1990s, we moved back to San Diego. Since that time we’ve continued to observe fires all over California. Friends and family up and down the state have been evacuated and impacted by heavy smoke, road and school closures, and immediate threats to their homes or businesses.

NASA Satellite Picture of the Cedar Fire and five others burning in California and Mexico

In 2003, the Cedar fire swept from the Cuyamacas to near where Highways 163 and 52 intersect in San Diego. It burned over 270,000 acres, destroyed 2800 buildings and killed 15 people. Hundreds of houses in Scripps Ranch were burned. I was working at a local hospital at the time and we admitted many patients in respiratory distress from smoke as well as elderly people with health issues who had lost their homes and had no place to go. One fellow nurse’s ranch near Alpine was destroyed but she was able to rescue her menagerie of dogs, cats, exotic birds, and livestock.

US Forest Service Map Of Cedar Fire

As a lifelong hiker and backpacker, I’ve seen a parade of wildfires that have resulted in the destruction and closure, sometimes for years, of great hiking areas in Southern California. Since 2000, some of my favorite trails have fallen victims to the Witch, Station, Creek, Harris, Mountain, Topanga, and Old Fires, among others.

Nothing in my life, however, has compared to the destructive fires of 2018.  Look for another article in the upcoming days that will cover my personal experiences (and those of friends and family) with three fires in 2018 that were among the top ten most destructive fires in California history.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie December 21, 2018 at 12:55 pm

I remember the 1970 Lagunas fire. I recall sitting in the 3rd story of a Golden Hill old mansion right next to 94 and we could see the red glow from the fire off in the east.

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OB Joe OB Joe December 21, 2018 at 12:57 pm

Yeah, I remember the 70 fire. Out in OB the sky turned a weird yellow as ash filled the air out west near the ocean. It made me want to take some LSD – which I did.

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Editor editordude December 21, 2018 at 12:58 pm

As with most of our images and photos, click on it for a larger version – like the U-T front page.

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