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San Diego's burning


When his neighborhood was engulfed in flames, this FP learned that people are at their best when things are at their worst.


San Diego's burning

When his neighborhood was engulfed in flames, this FP learned that people are at their best when things are at their worst.

By Eric Anderson, MD
Family Physician/San Diego

Those of us who have lived long in southern California are no strangers to fire. "Every 20 or 30 years, dating back to the early 1800s, large swaths of the state have burned," says William Patzert, a long-range forecaster at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. "The difference today is the huge influx of people into the wilderness areas."

He got that right. More than 27,000 persons were evacuated from their homes in San Diego County this October and November, and 2,453 homes were burned to the ground—350 of them in my immediate neighborhood.

Fires always threaten in southern California due to the constant drought. One definition of desert is an arid area with less than 10 inches of rain per year—and San Diego hasn't had a year with even nine inches since 1998. Other risk factors include the hot Santa Ana winds that blow in from the east, commonly gusting to more than 50 miles per hour, and the terrain of canyons and ridges that seems to funnel those winds.

Although many builders have used inappropriate landscaping for their developments, nothing could have been more badly chosen than the forests of eucalyptus trees that surround the homes in Scripps Ranch. Those trees were brought from Australia, at the time when railroads were king, and planted in the sprawling ranch land owned by the Scripps newspaper family in the northeast of our city. The trees were going to be used for railroad ties, but turned out to be too brittle to hold a nail. They have continued to adorn the slopes of this land that developers bought from the Scripps heirs in the 1970s, even though it's well known that they explode readily in fire and their oily leaves fuel the flames.

My neighbors woke around 7 a.m. on Sunday Oct. 26 to shouts that they had 20 minutes to abandon their homes. (I was returning from a trip to the East Coast and changing planes in Dallas when I heard that Scripps Ranch—and probably my house—was burning.) One neighbor told me he assumed the 20 minutes gave him time for a quick shower, but as he stepped into the tub he saw flames coming up to his garden fence.

The shouts changed to "Get out now!" My neighbor escaped in his underwear and slippers. Cars were screeching out of garages as occupants took off in what they were wearing. There was no time, they said later, to seize family treasures, photo albums, and financial or insurance papers. Nobody grabbed a computer.

A few minutes later, the houses on my street with cedar shake wooden roofs started catching firebrand embers. Once several houses were ablaze, the danger became the radiant heat from such a critical mass. Curtains hanging in the windows of homes across the street from those on fire started to smolder, then ignite. Because few houses in southern California's benign climate have thermal glass, the heat went right through to furnishings.

By then, the top end of my street was in flames. As one of my neighbors and his family reversed out of his garage, the eucalyptus tree across the street burst into flames. He realized it would fall on his friend's house and set up a domino-effect fire at the bottom end of the street. He jumped out, turned on his friend's garden hose and sprayed the tree until the fire was out. He then took off—fast.

The house 50 yards from mine burst into flames. Unlike its neighbors, which had tile or fire-resistant concrete roofs, the roof on this one was wooden. By this time, firefighters had made it to the area and one, realizing this house was doomed, ran into it and snatched a handful of photographs from the piano. He dropped them in the road and ran off after his truck. He wanted the homeowners to have something if they ever got back.

Another owner was away from home and had left his dog in his garage. When he was allowed back to the area three days later, he found his house burned to the ground. Without much hope, he dragged himself to the city dog pound, and there he found his weary mutt. A fireman had heard the dog barking and had broken down the garage door so the dog could run free.

A doctor friend whose house was 150 yards from mine tried to drive back from a call, but was stopped by police at a barrier a mile from his home. So he got out and ran all the way home. His garage was empty, which told him his wife had made it out with their three children. He stood there stunned as the roofs around him—including his own—exploded. He said the cedar shakes were whizzing overhead in all directions with fire embers streaking like tracer bullets. The firefighters told him in no uncertain words to get the hell out.

The damage was appalling: Twenty-six of the 36 houses at the top end of my street were lost. All eight at the bottom, including mine, were saved, but there is no joy in being a survivor when so many neighbors have lost their homes. Of the 60 or so houses over the wall from the top end of my street, all but five burned to the ground.

All the homeowners escaped early on a Sunday morning with nothing. We whose homes survived dug in the embers with our neighbors, not quite knowing how we could help. Several of the wives were obsessed with finding their wedding rings. We dragged bricks and charred beams and burned-out mattress springs out of what had been the bedrooms; we raked ashes and sieved dust on makeshift strainers until dark.

Our successes? I found in one home the keys to the burned-out house; in another, a small ceramic pot; and in yet another, an enameled mug from the owner's camping gear. The man wept when I handed it to him.

As if to prove that resilience is the human condition, cardboard signs sprouted up amid the blackened embers. One owner found a small bell that was all that had survived from his house. He perched it on a charred log with a sign: "Ring bell for service." Another sign said, "Fire sale: All items half-off." Yet another, in a reference to our new governor's line in The Terminator, read, "Arnold! We'll be back!" A different sign bore the words, "God Bless America." Another said, "Our thanks to the firefighters and police of San Diego."

Our triage center, established in a high school four miles from my house, saw little in the way of true medical emergencies. Mostly we saw nosebleeds from the dry air and severe eye irritations, and sore throats from the acid fumes and ash that lay over the entire city. We saw a lot of simple chest infections. Some patients suffered anxiety attacks with depressive overlay.

The public services and community support were heart-breaking. Strangers drove past as we dug and left plastic bags of sandwiches on the pavement. Cardboard boxes with bottles of water appeared in driveways. Containers of rakes and shovels and brooms were deposited in key locations from one of the stores in the area. Another store dropped off two chairs at every burned lot, the white plastic contrasted strikingly with the blackness of the scorched earth, as if to show hope for the future.

And as if to show God is benign, San Diego's record run of days without measurable rain ended when 0.31 inches fell on the city on Saturday Nov. 1, 2003, cleansing the air and restoring our souls.



Eric Anderson. San Diego's burning. Medical Economics Dec. 19, 2003;80:40.

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