Thursday, November 1, 2007

RSF Feels Witch's Wrath

By Ian S. Port
Assistant Editor

The event was all-but-inevitable — yet somehow unbelievable.

On Monday, Oct. 22, a wildfire birthed in the scrubby chaparral northeast of Ramona whipped westward from the mountains and, fanned by speeding Santa Ana winds and parched fall air, surged into Rancho Santa Fe, leaving behind 76 smoldering properties and hundreds of acres of blackened open space.

Named the “Witch fire” after the area near Witch Creek where it started, that wave of speeding flames and embers forced the evacuation of not just Rancho Santa Fe, but a vast quadrant of San Diego County for the better part of a week. With many other parts of San Diego and Southern California evacuated or burning as well, the Santa Ana-fueled wildfires of 2007 captured the concern of the entire world.

But one would not have known it from the sight of things. With all residents and employees under mandatory evacuation, the Rancho Santa Fe area took on a post-apocalyptic air, aided by the ever-presence of odiferous smoke and orange-gray skies. Fire engines, National Guard humvees and Sheriff’s vehicles patrolled the streets, adding to the eeriness.

When residents were finally able to return around midday Oct. 25, many found their homes and belongings in smoldering ruin. While firefighters from around California staged a terrifically successful defense of all communities of Rancho Santa Fe, the fire won in a few places. A total of 55 structures were lost in the blaze; most of them homes. Another 21 were damaged. But no one was hurt.

The fire exacted its cruelty at random. Flames ran through creek beds and gullies, up hillsides and through trees to claim some houses and leave others untouched. Heroic residents resisted calls for evacuation to stay and save their own and neighbors’ homes. Others returned from afar to find nearby structures incinerated while their own home stood, miraculously untouched.

Some came back to little more than an up-thrust chimney and their possessions gone or disfigured, remnants spread on the ashy ground. And then they faced that daunting question — what to do next?

“I don’t know, maybe slit my wrists,” said Kevin Arms, a resident who lost all his things in a house on Zumaque, one of the hardest-hit streets in the Rancho Santa Fe Covenant area. Holding a shovel on Oct. 25, Arms’ eyes and face covered to protect him from the fumes emanating from the spot where his desk used to be, the former renter managed a resigned chuckle: “I’ll get another place to live.” He didn’t sound totally convinced.

The myriad emotions of residents grappling with the loss of their material lives are nearly unfathomable. But local fire experts say the rush of wildfires into Ranch Santa Fe was just a matter of time — as is another, similar event in the future.
The call to evacuate eastern portions of the Rancho Santa Fe Fire District, including the Crosby, went out before dawn on Oct. 22, though it didn’t become mandatory for the RSF Covenant until 10 a.m. By midday the evacuation area had grown to include all of Carmel Valley, and later that night Del Mar was added.

The impetus for the huge evacuation area was fearsome Santa Ana winds. With gusts up to 60 mph, the Santa Anas supercharged the brushfires, whipping them into 200-ft. walls of flame that sent burning embers shooting even higher and farther.

The Witch Fire had moved from the backcountry into Ramona, into Poway and across I-15 by the morning of Oct. 22nd. By that evening, with the help of the frenzying Santa Anas, the fire was burning in Rancho Santa Fe.

‘Highways of Fire’

It happened just like Irwin Wills thought. The former chief of the Rancho Santa Fe Fire District strongly advocated for better fire protection during his 13-year tenure — fearing the same set of circumstances that shuffled in the Witch fire. Like many knowledgeable observers, Willis also didn’t believe that the Witch fire would stop at Rancho Santa Fe.

“The predictions that we made as to how the fire would occur —it’d come from the east, it’d go down the San Dieguito river, it’d come out of the river on both sides, it’d hit Fairbanks, it’d hit Rancho – were very, very accurate,” Willis said.

Fire District Director Jim Ashcraft has his own name for the riverbeds: “We have what I call the highways of fire – the San Dieguito creek area and the Escondido creek area. They’re extraordinarily dangerous.”

The Witch took those routes on its blitz into the Ranch. But unlike other wildfires where a wall of flames works its way somewhat predictably toward an area, the finicky Santa Ana winds kept firefighters on their toes — and residents of areas from Olivenhain to Fairbanks Ranch guessing about their homes’ fate.

Surrounded on three sides by open space and chaparral-covered hillside, the R.E. Badger Water Filtration Plant off of Aliso Canyon lay exposed to what would become an ocean of flames.

The plant, surrounded by fencing and built of cement, uses hazardous chemicals to treat water for Rancho Santa Fe and Solana Beach — the same water that pours out of fire hydrants and hoses in a wildfire. “The main thing there is, we want to keep the plant on, because we need the water for firefighting,” Santa Fe Irrigation District General Manager Mike Bardin said.

Winds brought the flames to Bardin’s plant around 7 p.m. Monday evening. The glowing towers of orange shot embers up into the wind, spraying all around and threatening the “tank farm” where hazardous chemicals are stored.

By 10 p.m., the plant was surrounded by fire and firefighters, and operating on its diesel generators because the surrounding electricity poles had been incinerated.

“It burned right up to our fence line and then right around our plant and right up the rest of the hillside,” Bardin said. “Three-fourths of the way around our plant was open space and all that was burned. It’s surreal when you see it.”

But emergency planning with the fire district — and a pre-fire warning call to remind fire fighters to come up and protect the chemical tanks — had carried the day. Bardin’s cement plan survived unharmed. “We kept that plant manned 24 hours a day and produced water the whole time.”

The Battle of Rancho Santa Fe

Farther south, another branch of the Witch fire had run from Lake Hodges into the San Dieguito riverbed, where it raced toward homes on the eastern side of Rancho Santa Fe.

“Those drainages are kind of like chutes and they tend to funnel the fire, especially the San Dieguito river bottom,” RSF Fire District Chief Nick Pavone later recounted. “You have those really steep slopes and the fire just whips through those open space areas.”

The fire moved so fast Monday night that it didn’t completely burn the vegetation that transported it. But once in the river bottom, homes at the tops of nearby hillsides in Rancho Del Rio and the Covenant made easy targets.

Zumaque street lies on the far southeast corner of the Rancho Santa Fe Covenant: a steep, downhill-sloping single lane that ends close to the San Dieguito river. The homes on the west side of the street sit high on the edge of a hilltop, overlooking the river and mountain areas to the east.

Six of them were the Witch fire’s first victims in the Covenant. Two other homes on Zumaque were damaged. It would be the hardest-hit street in the area.

The fire raced through the Covenant Monday night, spreading through trees and embers catapulted from high-rise walls of fire. The high winds created the possibility that the flames could end up nearly anywhere.

“The problem with this fire is that it didn’t come in a straight line, it was like a chessboard or a checkerboard,” recounted Jim Ashcraft, who observed the blaze from RSF Fire District Station No. 1. “It bounced to different spots. So even if you had your resources at one area it would go somewhere else. We could have had triple the resources and we still would’ve had losses.”

From Zumaque the flames moved both north and south, engulfing homes on El Vuelo, Via Monalex, Las Cuestas, Las Colinas and other streets. But the southerly winds prevailed, pushing the Witch fire straight for the RSF Village.

Duncan Hadden’s family has owned The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe for 50 years. So when the call for evacuation came on Monday, Hadden didn’t leave — he set up shop in a central room of his business and waited. When winds freshened around midnight, the fire was headed for The Inn — and him.

“At 3 a.m. I was sitting in the living room of The Inn seeing these flames coming over the tops of the eucalyptus trees in the park — they were that tall — and all the hot embers coming into town,” Hadden remembered. “The front lawn was just sparklers of ashes and burning embers … I didn’t dare get closer than here, but you could hear propane tanks exploding from down there, eucalyptus trees exploding from the sap, it was just unbelievable.”
Standing alone on the lawn of his family’s Inn, wearing ski goggles to see through the smoke while watching towers of flame shooting into the sky, Hadden feared the worst.
He was seeing the fire at Camino Selva, a small street off of Via De Santa Fe less than a block from Stump’s Market and the Mobile station in the village. With flames so close to the middle of Rancho Santa Fe, the firefighters had a choice: work like hell to stop the fire there, or see the village and perhaps a large swath of the Ranch in smoldering ruin by sunrise. So the fire crews — many of whom were slaving through their second straight night of battling blazes around Southern California — turned their hoses straight up in the air.

“They caught their embers and at least got water on them — and then God was with us, because they didn’t land on a bad spot,” Ashcraft remembered. “Their energy was down just enough that nothing caught.”

For Hadden, the firefighters’ valiant efforts and upturned hoses also proved miraculous — his family business and the village it relied on were saved.

“I would’ve bet every penny in my pocketbook that we would’ve lost the town and The Inn if they hadn’t been down there,” he said.

Three hours later, the sun rose over a Rancho Santa Fe that looked largely like as it had the previous day. Three houses on Camino Selva, and many others in the eastern Covenant were gone. Only two homes were lost in Fairbanks Ranch, where the fire again jumped the riverbank and raced up a dry hillside.

The village, the schools, the churches, many businesses and most of the area’s homes had survived the night. But the Witch’s wrath was far from over.

The Command Center
When orders for evacuation were announced Oct. 22, law enforcement and fire protection officers poured into Rancho Santa Fe Fire District Station No. 1 near the Rancho Santa Fe School. The building that normally serves as a station for the RSF Patrol, local firefighters and other law enforcement was teeming with badges — many worn by individuals from out of town. Because RSF District fire fighters had gone out earlier to do battle on the eastern side of the district, some crews in the station early Monday also lacked in-depth knowledge of the Ranch.

That’s why, according to many who spent time there, RSF Patrol Chief Matt Wellhouser ran the show at the command center. When authorities wondered how to find seniors and others with special needs, Wellhouser knew where to find the list. When fire crews needed quick access to a creek or gulley threatened by fire, Wellhouser pulled out the maps and gave directions.

According to Association Manager Pete Smith, who also worked long hours at the RSF command center, Wellhouser and his Patrol officers served as the authority on Rancho Santa Fe for Sheriff’s deputies, Border Patrol, California Highway Patrol Officers, Firefighters and the National Guard.

“The next three days all flowed into one, and Matt stayed at his post for up to 20 hours per day,” Smith said. “All other agencies had organized shifts realizing that people perform best if they are rested, but for Matt there simply wasn’t anyone else that could do what Matt does. The people in the room — to their credit — they all deferred to Matt.”

As the second day of evacuations began, security became a key concern. Many Ranch residents were evacuated far from their homes and wouldn’t be allowed to return for days. But with many driveway gates left open, the National Guard on its way, and few people around, the area was ripe for looting — until authorities blocked off all entrances.

Even then, trespassers were found. Association Director Tim Sullivan had two saddles stolen from his barn. A CHP officer chased down two looters who ran through a roadblock. And the Patrol caught four suspected arsonists late on the night of Oct. 23.

Though firefighters had stopped flames in the Covenant early Tuesday morning, the heat was by no means off Rancho Santa Fe. With winds rising during the daylight hours, the Witch fire came around the other side of Lake Hodges and headed again down Del Dios — this time toward Rancho Cielo and the northeastern corner of the Covenant.

“Once it jumped Del Dios highway east of the fruit stand, it again started to go on the backside of Rancho Cielo and then went the back way towards the Escondido drainage,” Pavone said. “And that was high priority for us to stop it on the backside so it did not get into that Escondido drainage — so it never got to the Bridges. It got stopped around Aliso Canyon and Via Del Las Flores.”

By the end of Tuesday, the fire was out — sort of. Though a front of fast-moving flames no longer threatened to move west, numerous hot spots periodically thrust columns of blue smoke into the sky. Fire crews would spend another day and a half trolling residential streets as wind whipped heat held below the ground into fresh fires, any one of which could flare up and threaten more homes.

Even on Wednesday, with camouflaged National Guard humvees giving a wartime feel to the village of Rancho Santa Fe and fire engines everywhere, hot spots flared up around Las Colinas and Via De La Valle, burning trees and brush. The area was literally still smoldering from the heat of the fires.

‘It’s Going To Happen Again’

Vast areas east the Covenant were singed by the flames, but no homes were lost in Cielo, the Crosby or the Bridges — all of which were built after the fire district implemented fire protective building regulations.

Those rules, known as “shelter-in-place,” were the brainchild of former RSF Fire Chief Irwin Willis, who says the Witch fire provided fantastic validation for what remains a controversial idea: That if trapped by wildfires, residents of well-designed communities would be safer in their fire-resistant homes than fleeing on roadways. That scenario didn’t occur in the Witch fire, but Willis says the homes’ survival speaks volumes about the effectiveness of the guidelines.

“The [Cielo] houses were right at the top of the ridgeline, so it was kind of a worst-case scenario for a fire — you don’t want the structures above the fire with heavy fuels below,” Willis said. “So those structures withstood worst-case scenario fire and were untouched, totally untouched.”

Of course, the safest way to get people through a fire is to get them away from it — and that appeared to be the strategy with the massive evacuations for the Witch fire. But an equally important strategy is protection and defense — subjects Willis emphasized as fire chief.

“I said it hundreds of times at homeowners’ association meetings and any kind of group that I could get together and people would listen. I would say look, first of all Rancho Santa Fe burned once in the 1940s. And if you look at the history of fire, it tends to repeat itself.”

But Willis said that there were still as many as 400 shake-shingle roofs going into the Witch fire, and he knows of three that burned (including at least one on Camino Selva). Shake-shingle roofs are dangerous because embers that land on them can catch the shingles on fire in situations where tile or ceramic wouldn’t ignite.

“At least those three structures and probably a lot more didn’t need to burn. They burned just because the owners wouldn’t change their shake roofs,” Willis said. Although new development is required to meet stricter standards, many existing older homes are still around, waiting for the day when a nearby wildfire reduces them to ash. And Willis warned that such a day will come.

“There are certain areas that are fire-prone — they burn. Well Rancho Santa Fe, if you look at it, it has every single aspect that has led to major fires,” Willis said. “It’s got the heavy vegetation, it’s got the narrow winding roads. It’s built in. It’s only a

matter of time … it’s going to happen again.”

The long road (block) home—residents found a frustrating return to RSF

Ian S. Port
Assistant Editor

The line stretched over 40 cars deep, from the intersection of Calzada Del Bosque and Via De Santa Fe over a bridge and back towards Fairbanks Ranch. At the northern end, behind signs sternly warning “road closed,” stood three National Guard troops shouldering assault rifles.

Having been forced from their homes over three days earlier, the crowd was irritable. But the troops were helpless — under orders.

Twenty minutes earlier, the Rancho Santa Fe Fire District had announced via its Web site that Rancho Santa Fe was open to repopulation, that the evacuation of 21,000 residents from the Witch fire was over. A few minutes later, that message was taken down. The roadblocks set up by the National Guard were still in place, because of a snafu among higher-ups in command of the fire response.

But almost no one sitting in their cars waiting to return home that Thursday morning knew those details — or cared much about them. The frustration and anticipation among homesick residents was palpable. People wanted to know if they had a home left.

“We’ve all been operating with this high level of anxiety now for four days,” said Annemae Kelleher, sitting in her black Mercedes SUV a few minutes before the Via De Santa Fe checkpoint opened. “You try to temper your frustration with patience, but even the most patient person is tested right now.”

The delay in opening the roadblocks — which was caused by a serious disagreement between the Sheriff’s department, who managed the National Guard presence, and the RSF Fire District, Patrol and Association, who wanted to let residents in — lasted about two hours.

The delay may have put a bad taste in residents’ mouths as they reentered Rancho Santa Fe. But for the owners and residents of 18 homes in the Covenant (and more outside), the ache of a frustrating return was deepened by pain and shock of finding rubble where their home used to be. Save for a chimney and a pile of blackened soot and metal, some found nothing in the place they’d left everything.

One of those was Via Monalex resident John Rikkers. He moved his family to Rancho Santa Fe from New York City two months ago, and they were happy with a newer home they bought overlooking a small canyon. Having evacuated to Laguna Beach, Rikkers heard initially that his home was safe — only to get a call some hours later saying it had been completely destroyed.

“My guess is that they were just so outmanned and unable to summon any other resources in, and everything available was dealing with other things in that area,” Rikkers said. “That canyon looks like the moon right now.”

On the other end of the luck spectrum was a Rancho Del Rio resident named Theresa, who returned to find the exterior of her home burned — just barely — and her yard scorched black. Her neighbor, Scott Jacobs, tore a burning pile of firewood and a flaming deck chair away from her home when he was supposed to be evacuated. Four homes on their street were lost completely to the Witch fire. With a strong arm and a garden hose, Jacobs saved Theresa’s.

“I am so lucky. You do not know how happy I feel,” said Theresa, as she made arrangements Wednesday, Oct. 24, to cook dinner for her neighbor and his family. She and her husband bought the house on July 29, 1969 — the day Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon. “And now it looks like a moonscape,” Theresa chuckled, looking over her pitch-colored yard.

Jacobs, who lives across Rancho Del Rio road from her, had goodwill to spare the day he saved his neighbor’s house. He’d seen television crews reporting from his street while evacuated, though he could see only the burned tops of the palm trees in his front yard. He returned — on his birthday — to find his land blackened, but his house completely unharmed.

“That’s what I got. I got a house for my birthday,” Jacobs chuckled.
Others’ fire returns brought a mix of glee and sadness. Realtor Patrick Galvin returned Oct. 26 to find his own house completely untouched — but his two rental properties completely destroyed.

“I suppose we’re not as emotionally involved, as it’s a rental property,” Galvin said. He estimated the houses’ worth at around $2.5 million each. “But the land is still there.”

And finding his own home intact was a relief. Galvin also had seen news reports from Rancho Santa Fe that described the houses destroyed. When they gave the number of his home, Galvin’s heart sank. “I thought it was ours. I said holy shit – there’s our life gone.” But the house on the news was on Camino Selva, and Galvin lives on Paseo Arbolado.

“It could have been a lot worse,” he said.

Then there was Kevin Arms, who spent much of Thursday reluctantly scraping through the remnants of his rented home on Zumaque. He found fused glass and lots of blackened wood, but the only possessions he uncovered were an old license plate and an antique bicycle, its pedals melted nearly into the single remaining wheel.

“My mom gave that to me,” Arms said softly. “I’ll tell her where to find it.”

RSF residents/officials share their fire experiences

Duncan Hadden, Owner of The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe

The Rancho Santa Fe Fire Dept. saved this town of Rancho Santa Fe. It was on Monday night at 3 a.m. I was the only one in town, in the living room of The Inn keeping an eye on the hotel. They’d evacuated everybody. At 12 o’clock the Santa Ana winds picked up and drove that fire up from Las Colinas and Via De La Valle toward Camino Selva. I was sitting in the living room of The Inn, seeing these flames coming over the tops of the eucalyptus tress in the park— they were that tall — and all the hot embers coming into town. The Fire Department was unbelievably good at putting fire hoses straight in the air to cool the embers down before they came back down and landed all over the front lawn of The Inn and the village. And I would’ve bet every penny in my pocket book that we would’ve lost the town and in The Inn if they hadn’t been down there.

It was just unbelievable watching that. I could not even walk down there, it was too hot and too smoky. I was wearing ski goggles here on the front lawn of The Inn just so I could see. I didn’t dare get closer than here, but you could hear propane tanks exploding from down there, eucalyptus trees exploding from the sap — it was just unbelievable. And it’s hard to get a depth perception at night but then when I found out the next morning it was Camino Selva — that’s incredibly close to the post office and Stump’s. If they hadn’t have stopped it there it would’ve just gone right over into the town.

Irwin Willis, Former RSF Fire Chief

The firefighters did an absolutely phenomenal job of stopping that fire. I went out and looked at places that they stopped the fire and I don’t know how they did it. I was in the fire service for 33 years and I have no idea how they were able to stop the fire like they did. My predictions were that the fire wouldn’t get stopped and that it would just continue basically to Solana Beach and the pacific.

What I was never able to really get people to believe is that it can happen here, it can happen to them. I really think it’s a human defense mechanism that we have this built-in belief — ‘It won’t happen to me. I’m not going to be the person to get into a car accident. I’m not going to get hit by a drunk driver. My house isn’t going to burn down.’ So [people] don’t take the precautions [they] could take to save their homes. But if people would replace their shake roofs, look at the vegetation around their homes and get rid of the highly flammable stuff, they could make their homes 10 times more fire safe than they are today.

Rev. Jack Baca, Pastor, RSF Village Presbyterian Church

We were checking out the church and saw that the fire crews were parking in the lot of the church, which was great. There’s not that many places to park in Rancho Santa Fe. The crews were kind of laying around on the grass trying to get some rest and all, so at that point we said hey, this is crazy. So we got out and stopped and invited the guys to come into our fellowship center. We’ve got restrooms and showers. They were extremely appreciative of the showers especially. That really got them excited. Some of the crews had been up for 48 hours at that point.

We started cooking in the kitchen and bringing in sodas and Visine and Advil and hamburgers as well as cots — 40 cots and air mattresses. And the fire crews just started coming through. If they had a few hours off they’d come in and we’d feed them and give them a place to sleep and a shower and just a place to be. That basically just kind of escalated. We had a supply chain going, and the guys at the Rancho fire department and the Patrol and the Sheriff’s department were all extremely helpful in helping us arrange to get the stuff in here and have a few people here. So we just kind of kept that going.

Jim Ashcraft, RSF Fire District Director

There were some extraordinary efforts. The firefighters of Rancho Santa Fe — and I mean out entire district — they worked 60 straight hours. It’s beyond anything that I’ve ever witnessed as a personal commitment to an area, and I don’t mean just the Covenant. I’ve talked to neighbors at the Summit, at Fairbanks, 4S Ranch —it’s just unbelievable what’s occurred.

Every home in the Covenant was in danger, particularly Tuesday morning at 3 o’clock. At that point I thought that probably my house was gone. I figured that there was a good chance it would go through the Covenant and through Solana Beach.

Probably the one where our odds were the worst — and I don’t know which fire group was involved — was the battle of Fairbanks Ranch. Monday night the feeling was we’d lost 15 houses at Fairbanks because the Lazardi creek area and San Dieguito river – those two were filled with fire and they were coming at high velocity, and we figured we’d lost 15 houses. We lost [two]. Four were damaged. It was extraordinary. I don’t know how many groups were there – probably 3,4,5 trucks at the most. We needed 15. But they did it.

John Rikkers, Rancho Santa Fe Covenant Resident (Via Monalex)

We then got a call from the previous owners who’re on the East Coast right now, who had heard from someone that one house had burned on the cul de sac, but that it wasn’t ours. But then within a couple of hours my wife gets the call on her cell phone and she knew the moment she saw his name on the ID that they only reason he would’ve been calling was to say no, in fact it was.

Then we began calling the fire department, the RSF Patrol, the whole thing and we obviously weren’t getting through. But we did get a call back from someone at the Patrol who just left a nice message on my cell phone just saying, ‘Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but your house has been destroyed. But that’s all he said. He didn’t say ‘Call me back if you have any further questions,’ or anything like that. So there was just this sense of HUH?

Nick Pavone, RSF Fire District Chief

The fire moved so quickly through [drainages] that it burned the lower portions of the vegetation, right along the surface. It didn’t even get into some of the trees. If you go along Del Dios Highway and you look in the river bottom there, you’ll see where some of those trees are still green at the top. The fire moved so fast, with such a rapid spread because of the wind, that it basically burned everything at the surface and hardly got into the tree areas.

We definitely had the potential [to lose the village]. There’s no doubt about that. But we were able to prevent it from getting into that core area of the village and the Ranch. If you look at El Vuelo, Las Colinas, El Mirador, we took some pretty substantial hits there. If we would not have been able to keep it confined to that area and it would’ve started to move a little bit north and west, then that would’ve probably created a situation where it would have probably run through the rest of the Ranch.

Dave Abrams, Fairbanks Ranch General Manager

There were two Fairbanks homes lost — anybody can figure more or less what that would be. The rest of the problems in the community were basically wind-damaged trees uprooted themselves and snapped off, created a fair amount of damage. Most of the severe fire damage occurred Monday night. [Residents] would certainly call [with questions] and we’d answer as best as we could, although we didn’t know that much either — it was just whatever the public authorities would tell us and what we learned ourselves off the TV, radio, etc. It was very frustrating because people were anxious to get home, and they couldn’t, and so that created some raw nerves. But they’re back in now, trying to pick up the pieces.

Al Frowiss, Hacienda Santa Fe

Just before I left on Monday, I took a quick tour through the neighborhood. One of the palm trees was on fire in our neighborhood and I turned around and got on my cell phone to call 9-1-1 and couldn’t get through to the fire dept. But about a half a block away was a fire truck coming my way, so I flagged him down and told him about the tree that was on fire. Other than that I’m seeing fires across the street over on the Sahm property as I was leaving. Everybody went different places — some people were in Orange County and so on. I basically kept our neighborhood up to date through group e-mails. Ninety percent of all residents are on my e-mail list, and I was able to keep people informed. We lucked out — it looks like so far, anyway. We never saw [Hacienda Santa Fe] mentioned and thank goodness.

Robert Barron, City of Del Mar firefighter.

“It was amazing. We started at the Wild Animal Park area. We got diverted to Coronado Hills fire, in San Marcos, a spot fire from Witch fire, a 300-acre fire. We got it out fast. Then we were diverted to the Witch fire, to the south end, we started in Del Dios. Power lines were down, so we went around to Cielo, started fighting the fire in Cielo, working down Del Dios through Rancho Santa Fe, to Fairbanks Ranch. I went out Sunday afternoon and got back Thursday. It was constant. The longest rest we had was six hours of sleep, before that we got two hours. We were exhausted. We were on a type-one engine, focused on structure protection. We had to move. Pull up to a structure, if we can save it, put out the fire and brush around it, pick up our hoses, find a fire hydrant, fill up our tank, and go to next house. That’s what we did, over and over. Five of us in a strike team. Most of the time we were in the midst of flame. We actually saved all of the houses we protected and we only lost one outbuilding in Rancho Santa Fe. We saved about 20, a little over 20, in Rancho Santa Fe, the yards are so big, it takes a lot more time. It definitely feels pretty good, at least 20 homes, probably more. It was like standing on top of a chimney, with firebrands and embers flying past your face. You really don’t have time to think about (being in danger). You know what your job is... you really don’t think about your health or safety. There is so much you need to do. Your mind is constantly racing on what you have to do in that particular moment and where you’re going next. (There are) tons of adrenaline. You’re basically relying on your training. You don’t have time to think. You just act.”

Bruce Pollett, San Diego firefighter, based at Station 24 on Del Mar Heights Road.

“We wanted to say thank you to our community for thinking of us and taking care of us. It’s just awesome. We haven’t been able to cook for ourselves. They brought food. We have more cookies than we could eat in two lifetimes. They thank us as we’re out and about. The community, the outpouring of support, there are people that lost everything and they’re still saying thanks for everything we’ve done. I’ve been to the Guejita fire in Escondido, I was on the Cedar fire. This was a bigger one. This was huge. It was so fast-moving… We’ve given some stuff to people. One guy today showed up, they drove from Austin, Texas. They had collected stuff, their car was packed up with toiletries and bags of dog food. They were trying to give it to us, we sent them to the fairgrounds. We gave them a bunch of cookies and cakes to bring to people. We want to say thanks to everyone. Little girls came with a nice sign and music CDs, Queen and AC-DC. They had obviously taken a lot of time and effort to make us something to say thank you. We just wanted to say thanks to the community. We see this as the job we are paid to do. We’re not jumping over tall buildings in a single bound, we’re just trying to do the best we can. There were times when we couldn’t stop the fire, buildings burned to the ground, we wish we could have done more.”

Mark Conley, horse trainer and owner of Concord Equestrian Center at the Del Mar Horsepark.

“I helped, volunteered at the race track Monday morning, about 7 a.m., I helped unload horses. The animals were freaked, and the owners were on edge, from the smoke, and it was so early in morning. It was extremely busy. It went fairly well, 2,000 horses were evacuated to the race track. My house was being evacuated, I live in Del Mar Heights. Several horse trainers stayed at the horse park all night long. We were concerned Monday afternoon. The horse park had 700 horses, it would be tough to move them. There are a lot of eucalyptus and palm trees, our worry was if those started catching fire and there was a high wind, it would just run down the river bed. (If the fire came) we figured we would let (the horses) out to the reserve. It was our last resort. We would calmly lead them out to the open area and have people be with them, in the dirt. We had set out drums of water and hay for them. That was the fallback plan. To move 700 horses under a panic situation, where are you going to put them? I was giving it a 15 percent chance we were going to have to do this. We were up, cat-napping in vehicles.

I kept driving back as far as possible, at 3:30 a.m., at the backside of Fairbanks, I could see the fire, and I was talking to police. The wind was calm near the horse park, but at the fire it was blowing hard. We just kept checking on it and kept a cool head… by early Tuesday, the firefighters had done such a great job beating the fire back in Rancho Santa Fe and Fairbanks, we were 100 percent confident we were not going to have to evacuate. I’ve been in tornadoes, I’ve been in hurricanes, I’ve been in floods…. All I have to do now is be in an earthquake and a tsunami, neither one do I want to be in. I don’t want any more natural disasters, thank you. As far as I know, no horses have lost their lives, that I know.”

—Compiled by Ian S. Port and Joe Tash

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

RSF Review, RSF Foundation, and other community organizations join forces to help fire victims

To assist local fire victims recover, the RSF Review has teamed with the Rancho Santa Fe Foundation and several other community organizations, including Kids Korps, RSF School, RSF Community Center, the Village Church, RSF Rotary Club, RSF Association and NeighborHelp. This effort is being coordinated through the RSF Foundation, which has several options in place for donors who wish to provide funding for effective, focused assistance to the victims. This drive is designed to reduce duplication of effort, make the most efficient use of resources, and provide immediate assistance to those most in need.
To find out how you can help or make donations, visit

Friday, October 26, 2007

Focusing on the Heart of the Community

The Rancho Santa Fe Community Center is deeply saddened by the destruction and damage of homes in the Rancho Santa Fe community this past week due to the Witch Creek Fire. We wish to extend our condolences to our many friends, neighbors, supporters and members who have lost everything.
In response to this sad development in our community, the Rancho Santa Fe Community Center is assisting relief services headed up by the RSF Foundation and other local organizations, including the RSF Presbyterian Village Church. In addition, the Community Center is also coordinating a "Child to Child" drive to assist the children of our community whose homes have been destroyed. (All of the most current information is available on our website at .)
The Community Center is still closed as of Friday, October 26. Currently, members of the staff are performing a thorough cleaning that meets state standards in order to mitigate the environmental impact of ash and smoke. This is an important step in providing an environmentally safe place for the children to return to as of Monday, October 29.
As of Friday, October 26 at 2 pm, the Rancho Santa Fe School District is tentatively planning to open on Monday. The Solana Beach School District had yet not decided whether they were resuming classes on Monday.
If for some reason, the schools are not open on Monday, the Community Center will be offering child care from 9 am to 5 pm, which will be FREE OF CHARGE to our members. If the schools resume their normal scheduling, the Center will begin providing our planned Fall Session II classes as scheduled on Monday, October 29. Members can continue to sign up for classes throughout the first week of the session, and no programs will be cancelled during this time. Please note that all outdoor activities in the next few weeks will be curtailed in response to air quality standards.
Also the Community Center will be offering FREE after-school programs for our members who are victims of the fire in Rancho Santa Fe. Please contact Lori Brockett, our Executive Director, at 756-2461 or by email at lbrockett@rsfcc.or g for information on receiving this service. In order for the Center to provide adequate staffing to provide our members with these importance services, please contact the Center at 858-756-2461.
The Rancho Santa Fe Community Center is also assisting the RSF Foundation in its mission to supply monetary donations and relief services to victims of the fire. The Center along with such community organizations such as the RSF Review, Kids Korps, the RSF School and the Village Church are coordinating their efforts through the RSF Foundation. Please go to the RSF Foundation website at for more information on the services that are being provided and how you can help.
In addition, at the bequest of one of our members, Lori Cooper, the Rancho Santa Fe Community Center will be coordinating a "Child to Child" Drive. "My heart went to the children that do not understand what is happening," Lori Cooper said in an email she sent this week. "I'd like to start a 'Child to Child' drive for our families in RSF that have lost their homes or are displaced at this time."
"The drive will collect toys and/or other items of comfort to help the children through the immediate crisis. The idea is to have our children give of themselves, by choosing one of their own toys or items they believe would be special to a child going through this crisis. These items will then be given to their friends and neighbors with an attached note written by our children. If they could do this when they return home we will put together items in age groups and distribute to the community." The Rancho Santa Fe Community Center will be the drop off point for this "Child to Child" Drive, beginning on Monday, October 29. An end date for the drive will be announced later.
The Rancho Santa Fe Community Center is committed to providing whatever aid and assistance we can for our friends and neighbors in this community during this time of crisis. The outside bulletin board of the RSF Community Center will be made available for the community to post information as it relates to the fire relief and information. Please stop by the Community Center office at 5970 La Sendita with notices or information you wish to post.

Boil Water Order issued for Del Dios Mutual Water Company

A Boil Water Order has been issued for the community of Del Dios, affecting approximately 151 customers.
Due to the fires, this public water system lost pressure in the water distribution system. The Boil Water Order will remain in effect until the distribution system has been disinfected and samples confirm the absence of bacteria in the water supply.
For more information on the Boil Water Order, please contact Darrell Connelly, at (760) 745-7869.

Del Mar Fairgrounds becomes Red Cross Shelter today

Qualcomm Stadium will be ceasing its operation today at noon. Evacuees at the stadium are requested to move to the Del Mar Fairgrounds shelter. Other Red Cross shelters continue to receive evacuees as well.
These facilities will remain open as long as there is a need. Residents will be provided a safe place to stay, meals and snacks, and basic health services at these locations. Additional shelters are being opened and operated by municipal and partner organizations. Residents in the potential path of fire should monitor local media for the latest information about services, or call 211.
Residents are urged to place their household pets in carriers or crates plus supplies such as food and leashes if they are brought to Red Cross shelters. Bring all necessary daily medications, supplies for your children, and any other critically needed items for the next 24 to 72 hours with you to the shelter.
Residents with large animals are instructed to contact the Del Mar Fairgrounds at 858-509-5245 to find out if there is room to house the animals. Another option for large animals is the Lakeside Rodeo Grounds, located at Highway 67 and Mapleview Street.
If you would like to volunteer or donate items for fire victims, please contact the following organizations:
American Red Cross to replenish supplies at
Community Resource Center at 760-753-1156
Volunteer San Diego at 858-636-4131
At this time, the Fairgrounds and the American Red Cross shelter do not need volunteers or donations of supplies for the evacuees.
The Del Mar Fairgrounds appreciate the volunteer care and support through this difficult time for San Diego County residents.
The 22nd District Agricultural Association is a State of California agency that falls under the Department of Food and Agriculture and oversees operations at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. For more information, visit