We’re about ten miles from the danger zone, living in the shadow of the fire.
Yesterday, we barbecued at a friend’s house and talked while the kids played. The sky was dark with smoke, weird colors in the sunset. They were dull, metallic grays and browns, not the spectacular reds that sometimes accompanied volcanic activity in Hawaii. We watched the news, and listened as they announced that a few thousand people had been evacuated from outlying suburbs (including one that we had seriously considered when we moved to the city). It sounded serious, but not catastrophic.
We came home, put the kids to bed, and checked the news every once in a while. It was getting worse. The evacuations were up to tens of thousands; a few entire communities were uprooted. This was worrisome. We fell asleep wondering whether the night would bring a respite.
It didn’t. By early morning, large swaths of city near Poway were being evacuated. We dropped the kids off for school; later, the school called and said we should pick them up. They’ve been home since midmorning. My wife’s school canceled today, and my own classes are canceled tomorrow. Many of my students and colleagues and friends are dealing with major upheaval.
Fire fighters have been largely unable to contain the fire for a few reasons. It’s extremely dry right now, creating ideal fire conditions. The San Diego area is crisscrossed with small canyons, and the fire thrives in the dry underbrush. Plus, the Santa Ana winds are blowing from the northeast towards the west and southwest. They’re driving the fire before them; also, they’re creating high-velocity gusts, up to 60 mph, that have prevented firefighters from using aircraft to fight the fires. (Check out this map.)
(On a broader level, the fire is the natural consequence of an urban planning regime that erects new suburbs on the edge of dry desert that would naturally burns every few years in small fires, and then suppresses those kinds of natural burns until there’s enough built-up dry scrub brush that the whole area becomes a tinder box. Instead of regular fires now, we have massive conflagrations twice a decade. The Cedar fire in 2003 killed 14 people and burned hundreds of thousands of acres. This one, with the seasonally appropriate name of the Witch Creek fire, is now expected to exceed the Cedar fire in acres burned, though fortunately there’s only one known fatality so far.)
The forecast isn’t good, either. The winds and dry temperatures are expected to last another day, at least. Hopefully the winds will die down on Wednesday. The National Guard has already been brought in. A few wind-free days could be enough to bring it under control. For now, we’re all at the mercy of the winds.
There’s a strange tension here, on the edge of the shadow of the fire. The sky is eerily dark, like early twilight, though it’s only afternoon. The air smells like smoke; the car is covered in a fine layer of ash.
We’re trying to be ready. We’ve already filled the gas tank and put gallon jugs of water in the back of the car. I went through the house and took pictures of every room. We’re making sure we’ve got clothing ready. And we’re keeping the kids in the house, since air quality outside is so bad. The environment is tense, in no small part because the kids are agitated from being cooped up. Should we make them clean their room? (We don’t know if their room will still be around in a day, do we?)
At the same time, we’re not directly threatened. The actual fire remains miles away. The San Diego Tribune maps the actual fire area. (If it doesn’t show up at first, hit refresh. The site’s getting a lot of traffic.) Meanwhile, I’m at about here on a map.
And so, we wait. We’ll load the car ready to go, tonight, just in case the alarms sound at 2 a.m. And if they don’t, we’ll spend tomorrow at home, still tense, checking the news every few minutes, and trying to keep the kids busy. (Maybe we’ll raid the pantry and put together a care package for the refugees, who number almost a quarter million by now.)
And we’ll hope that by the end of that day, we’ll know when the fires will burn out.