Last night there was a breaking news report on TV that was alerting San Diego County of the Banner Fire burning east of Julian, a small mountain town about an hour east of San Diego. Some residents had already been evacuated, but as of this morning, firefighters had already contained a significant amount of the wildfire and luckily, the weather was cooperating.
Ryan and I moved to San Diego (the first time) in late September of 2003. We didn’t have jobs, but we had a little money in our pockets that we received as wedding gifts from our August nuptials and figured we wouldn’t have trouble finding jobs once we settled in “the big city”.
We moved into a 2 bedroom apartment on October 4th, but didn’t have any furniture until at least October 20th, which was a bit of a cluster fuck because I had specifically told the moving company that I wanted the furniture delivered on the 4th. In the fine print, which I did read and even discussed with the moving rep regarding language stating what date we were requesting our furniture to be delivered. Apparently saying I wanted it on a specific date was actually saying I wanted it within 2 weeks after that date. Irregardless, we had enough foresight to pack an air mattress and a TV in the car when we drove out to CA so while it wasn’t ideal, it wasn’t horrendous.
We got our furniture and we devoted ourselves to getting everything unpacked and put in it’s proper place almost immediately because we were so happy to sleep in an actual bed as opposed to an air mattress that we had to re-inflate every morning. I had all of the pictures on the wall, curtains hung, throw pillows in their proper places, dishes in the cupboards and clothes in the closet. We were finally settled after being without our possessions for nearly a month.
And then the fires. As a girl who grew up in the Midwest, the one natural disaster that I associated with California was earthquakes. I knew nothing of wildfires. We were right next to a seemingly infinite source of water, fires never even occurred to me. My knowledge of wildfires came quick and was born out of absolute necessity.
Ryan and I lived in Mira Mesa at the time of the 2003 wildfires. We were in a residential area that was encapsulated by 8 lanes of freeway on either side of the suburb – I felt pretty safe. It wasn’t until the woman who lived upstairs told us that she was evacuating that Ryan and I thought we should go on a recon mission. Yeah, not the best idea, but we had no idea that we were putting ourselves in danger.
We hopped in the car and took off south down I-15. We didn’t even have to go one exit before we saw huge flames literally jumping across those 8 lanes of concrete freeway. HOLY SHIT! Things got real, really fucking fast. We took that first exit and were back at our place within minutes of leaving and tried to decide what we should do.
I remember being pissed that we had just gotten all of our things and now there seemed to be a real threat of them burning into nothing. I had no idea what we should take with us and where we should go. After a long discussion, we decided to stay put and if we had to leave, we would just go with the clothes on our backs and some of the pertinent documents needed for survival – credit cards, license, social security cards and our recently obtained marriage license.
Shortly after this decision, I started to have trouble breathing from all the smoke and ash in the air. I have asthma and for the most part it doesn’t cause me problems (if you don’t count the 5 day hospitalization in ’98). I had a prescription for a rescue inhaler and a steroid inhaler, but hadn’t had a need to fill it for months. I was feeling close to how I felt prior to being hospitalized 5 years prior and having no insurance wasn’t helping me feel better. I waited as long as I could and finally went to the pharmacy and paid full price for both inhalers – a steep $350.
The next day, I opened the front door of our apartment and took the picture above. The picture doesn’t do the image justice. They sky was blood red and it was the most horrifying and eerie thing I have ever seen. That picture was taken at roughly 3:00 in the afternoon when it is normally bright and sunny. You can see that the outside lights had turned on because it was so dark from all the smoke.
I don’t know when the fire was actually completely extinguished. Between the Cedar Fire and Paradise Fire, 16 people lost their lives and over 2000 people lost their homes. My good friend, Rochelle, lost her condo, which sat in the very middle of a huge complex. The surrounding buildings were unscathed. She lost everything. I didn’t know Rochelle at the time, but met her soon after once I started working at Qualcomm. I remember the first time she told me about her experience and my heart ached for her. Her home – all of her tangible memories. The tangible memories of her brother, Eric, who passed away years earlier were in that home. Pictures and trinkets that can never be replaced were reduced to ash.
Rochelle’s house was rebuilt, and with the help of many of her family and friends, she was able to obtain many pictures of her brother that she lost. It definitely put things in perspective for me.
I still think about the fires and how scared I was. It was the only time that I can look back and think how grateful I was that I didn’t have kids. If there ever comes a time when there is even a fraction of the threat that there was in 2003, you can bet your ass we’ll be off like a prom dress with only the things we can’t replace – Kamryn and Rory.