Account of my experience traveling through SoCal in a truck during the fires of 2003.
|Southern California Wildfires
An Eyewitness Report by Robin Scott Johnson
10/29/03 and 10/30/03
Just yesterday I made a delivery in San Bernadino, one of California's principle cities, and had been shocked by the flurry of ash falling like a winter snowstorm. Some of the ash particles were the size of postage stamps, still others about that of household dust particles. I inhaled my fair share of the remains of peoples' lives: their houses, their cars, their books, their horticultured yards, perhaps some bodies, trees, brush, and no doubt animals, who knows. I didn't have a dusk mask and the masked men who unloaded their freight from my trailer didn't offer me one. Perhaps their minds were on things other than that of common courtesy, such as their own looming peril. The closest fire to where I was standing now was only fifteen miles and moving closer.
Smoke hung thickly in the air, darker and more choking than any Los Angeles area smog. I coughed from time to time and could not help but notice the ever-present smell of burning wood, like a million fireplace fires all lit at once.
I hurried down next to Temecula and made my final delivery. There was considerably less smoke here and no falling ash. After I had finished my work I was told I could drive down to Otay Mesa, south of San Diego, and wait for a load in the morning. San Diego is where the worst of the fires was destroying thousands of homes and where most of the mandatory evacuations were being ordered.
Traveling through San Diego I witnessed the same smoky conditions I had seen in the San Bernadino area, but did not see any falling ash. I spent the evening at the Otay Mesa Truck Stop, enjoying a Burrito de Pollo for dinner. Then I slept well, but in the morning when I woke I saw that the usual San Diego area fog had combined with the smoke to reduce visibility to a mere twenty feet! I was dispatched to El Centro so I proceeded cautiously to the 805 Freeway where I headed north. The fog lessened and I switched on the radio. During the night another community had been lost and the fire in the San Diego area had done some unexpected things. The town of Julian was being threatened, and I think they said that the town was famous for Apple Pies. Firefighters had combined their forces there and were confident that the town would be saved, several roads and highways near Julian were closed.
From the 805 Freeway I merged onto Interstate 8 East, because of the fires I didn't follow my usual route through the back country, opting for the direct and safer route to the major Interstate that only travels from California to central Arizona. This highway ascends up into the mountains before plunging down below sea level, where El Centro and Mexicali are located.
As I climbed the mountain, the smoke thickened again, and now I came to areas where the entire landscape south of the roadway was scorched free of all vegetation, layered with ash, a moondust gray in hue. Some homes came into view, also south of the Interstate, but they had been saved, a small island of sanctuary amidst the destruction, and some residents had already returned home no doubt grateful. Driving further I rounded a corner and came upon a chimney sticking out of a mass of blackened, twisted steel and ash. This was the first structure I'd seen that was destroyed. Further on I went, and a line of foundations, perhaps thirty that had previously sat under homes were on the moonscape: Covered with ash, mangled metal jutting out in all directions, cars and trucks stopped where they were trapped by the killer flames and incinerated. So many of these obliterated homes had the shells of burned out cars in their driveways and parked in front of their properties, I can only speculate that there was little or no warning of the impending firestorm and the occupants found it faster to run for their lives or at least only take one car. My heart was sickened by all of the destruction and I began to take it very personally indeed, I turned off the radio to reflect on what I was a witness to.
A few days ago on the History Channel I watched an episode of their series, "World War II in Color." During the program I was struck by the scenes or Berlin, Hiroshima, and Stalingrad after the wars end. I never in my life believed I would see such destruction, but today, I saw it myself. Block after block, street after street, a black and gray world of crumbling bricks, melted street signs, incinerated cars, no life, no movement, it could have been from a war. It was all very depressing.
As I reached the top of the mountain, before I began the decent to El Centro, there was one last car which had broken down and been overtaken by the flames, sitting on the shoulder. There was nothing left of it: The vehicle sat on its bottom, even the rims had melted. An unreadable, charred speed limit sign was next to the shell, its post warped and bent by the tremendous heat. I turned the radio back on.
"The town of Julian is history." Reported the female DJ on the American/Mexican music station, Mix98, broadcast out of Mexicali, California. My heart sank. She went on to say that the entire town had been destroyed. The firefighters had lost their battle, and I suppose there would be no more apple pies coming out of Julian, if this story had been true. For later on a more credible source, KFI 640AM in Los Angeles reported that although 250 homes had been destroyed, most of the town had been spared, and although the danger was not over, there was again true optimism that their efforts would yield success.