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San Diego Fires
Posted by: Dale Franks on Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The San Diego fires have now resulted in massive evacuations. Indeed, a total of 950,000 Californians have been displaced by fires, making it the largest single civilian refugee movement in the United States since the Civil War.

This volume of displacements easily eclipses the size of the Katrina evacuations in Louisiana. At the same time, however, things seem to be working far better than they did in New Orleans. San Diego's "Superdome" is Qualcomm Stadium, and it is a primary gathering point for refugees. By all accounts, the crowd is calm, and in mostly good spirits, despite the fact that refugees are being accosted by roving bands of clowns.

Yes, you read that right. Clowns. With red noses and everything.

I can't think of anything that would lower my spirits more, but apparently there are some misguided people who do not believe that clowns are the embodiment of menacing evil.

In any event, despite the massive movement of civilians, most refugees are taking it with equanimity. so far, the SDPD reports only two arrests for looting, and it appears that law enforcement efforts in terms of large-scale criminality are unnecessary.

Also, officials at all levels have been impressed by the sheer amount of volunteerism from local communities. Shelters have been making requests for food, water, and medical supplies, and local residents have been quick to supply the shelters in their areas with the necessities.

This afternoon, I went out to survey the local situation.

Smoke is fairly dense in the local area
As you can see, even though central Escondido is in no particular danger at the moment, there's a huge amount of smoke in the air.

Escondido Fire Map
The city of Escondido was essentially surrounded by fires on three sides, but the fires have now moved to the west.

Evacuees gathered in a drug store parking lot
Refugees from local areas where fires are still burning uncontrolled, like Valley Center, are gathering in parking lots, like this on in front of a CVS drug store in Escondido. As you can see, some of the evacuees are able to use their RVs as temporary shelters.

Valley Center evacuees
Others, of course, are not so lucky, and are basically stuck with whatever they could carry with them.

Breath filters are useful
The sheer amount of particulate matter in the air makes breathing uncomfortable after a while. It gets into the sinuses and throat, and is fairly unhealthy. It causes headaches and bronchial irritation in just a few hours. Many people, therefore, are using a variety of surgical masks and other breathing filters.

An overly elaborate breath filter
Of course, you can take a good thing too far.

Southeast Escondido
Bear Valley Parkway, in southeast Escondido, was evacuated yesterday. The fire has gone through this area, so it's been re-opened, but it's still very smoky.

Del Dios fire area
Though Bear Valley Parkway itself has been re-opened, many of the neighborhoods adjacent to it are still closed, as the area is still smoldering, and fires can re-ignite. To the west of the Parkway, the fire still blazes in the Lake Hodges area.

Lake Hodges fire
The outer edge of the fire is still visible. On the other side of that mountain, the entire lake Hodges valley is a fire zone.

Sacramento fire engine
Fire assistance has been coming in from all over the state, both from other cities, from the CDF, and the governor's Office of Emergency Services. this is a pumper truck all the way from Sacramento.

Evacuee family
Three generations of this evacuee family have been dislocated from Ramona. They believe their house was bypassed by the fire, but they cannot return until the evacuation order on Ramona has been lifted.

Evacuee pony
Because so much of San Diego is rural, evacuees have to worry about large animals, as well as household pets. The North County mall has become a gathering place for evacuees with large animals, and a number of volunteer organizations have been organized for support of evacuees who've had to move out with their horses...and very little food for them. This little pony's experience with the fire, evacuation, and the experience of a new place, seems to have made him quite...uh...excited by the whole situation.

Waiting to learn whether their home has survived.
This couple has a home on the western end of Via Rancho Parkway. They can see the smoke of the fires, and they have no idea whether or not their home has survived. They can only wait, and hope.

fire crew on break
Because thousands of acres are still in flames, and containment on the fires is still very spotty, firefighters have little time for rest. So, they take their breaks where they can find them. This crew from El Dorado munches on some Subway sandwiches while they refill their pumper truck with diesel.

Fire crew getting pizzas
These firefighters from Placer Hills pick up some pizzas for the rest of their crew. After which, it's back to their hot, dirty, dangerous work.

Firefighter tent city
Not only is the work unpleasant, the off-duty conditions are rather spartan. The city park on Via Rancho Parkway has been closed to the public for use as a rally point for the fire crews. A number of tent cities have been erected as sleeping quarters. In the background, on the left side of the picture, you can see some of the more elaborate tents, where, presumably, the lickier firefighters get to sleep.

Police traffic control point
For the police, the work is...less strenuous. Police set up and maintain all of the roadblocks at the edge of the evacuation zones. Actually, it takes a lot of police officers, reservists, and out-of-town officers to man them all. You also notice an unusual number of officers with somewhat ill-fitting, or faded uniforms. They tend to have badges that say "Detective". In a situation like this, no one is exempt from uniformed patrol duty.

Fire helicopter
Not all the news is bad. Winds have dropped off from the 50-80 MPH gusts, which has allowed airborne fire crews to get into the act. This is especially helpful since the fires are near so many reservoirs, which allows for a quick refill of their 500-gallon tanks. Yesterday, all the airborne crews, both helicopter and fixed-wing, were grounded, so getting them back in the air has taken some pressure off the ground crews.

Rancho Bernardo burn area
One of the priorities of the fire crews is to save dwellings, while letting the surrounding areas burn. This small neighborhood in Rancho bernardo is untouched, despite having been surrounded by the fire that jumped the I-15 at this point.

More of the Rancho Bernardo burn area
Again, in Rancho Bernardo, the houses have been saved, even tough the whole of the surrounding area has been scorched.

As night falls, the high winds have shifted to an offshore breeze, instead of the strong Santa Anas blowing from the east. As a result, the fires are spreading much more slowly, giving the fire crews some space to breathe easier.

So far, there have been about 1,000 structures destroyed. this is a smaller total than the Cedars fire of 2003, even though the burn area is much larger.

What most people don't know about San Diego is that, outside of the Downtown area, and the Highway 78 corridor in north county, much of San Diego is not urban. Instead, it consists of a large number of small neighborhoods that are surrounded by what is essentially wilderness. In the case of these fires, it appears that they have been mainly concentrated in those wilderness areas to a greater extent than the Cedars fire was. The Cedars fire claimed about 2,300 structures, and we're hopeful that the toll on housing will be significantly smaller than 2003. Also, so far there has been 1 death directly related to the fire, along with an additional 5 deaths indirectly related to it, such as elderly evacuees who died of natural causes after being evacuated.

At this point, it appears that with the weather moderating, and with favorable winds, the worst of the situation is behind us. It may still be a few days before this is all over, but if the current weather holds, firefighters should be able to get a handle on the situation.
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Previous Comments to this Post 

Fantastic reporting and great pictures, Dale. Stay safe.
Written By: MichaelW
Great report Dale! Thanks for the update.
Written By: Teresa
"Again, in Rancho Bernardo, the houses have been saved, even tough the whole of the surrounding area has been scorched."

I know this is a horrible situation to have happen but where possible, is it not a good idea to burn this stuff off so you don’t have the same problem next year??. I apologize if this is a stupid question...i’m not anywhere near the west coast.
Written By: markm
URL: http://
Photojournalism at its best.

Stay safe.
Written By: David Shaughnessy
URL: http://
Good pictures. Though I wouldn’t be to hard on the guy with the flamed face mask. These are common with many bikers, and off-road enthusiasts.

Now that you’ve compared this situation with Katrina, you’re just going to be accused of being a racist.
Written By: Keith_Indy
I know this is a horrible situation to have happen but where possible, is it not a good idea to burn this stuff off so you don’t have the same problem next year??
And how many acres of wilderness do you suggest we burn every year? The local geography makes that impractical, at best.
Written By: Dale Franks
This should take care of some of the "surplus housing stock" currently on the market.
Written By: Tim
URL: http://
Not to sound callous, but if you live in the middle of a tinderbox, you ought to expect things like this.

Now, the same can be said of living on the coast, in tornado alley, in the middle of the desert, or where you get ice storms and blizzards.

As long as people are aware of the risks, take prudent steps, and are prepared for dealing with what is likely to happen, things should be able to work themselves out.

I would expect that home insurance premiums are higher in places that have higher risk.

And it’s likely that many of these homes will be reconstructed, exactly where they are now. So, more likely there will be a rise in construction materials and an influx of labor. I would also hope the building codes would include better fire protection.
Written By: Keith_Indy
Oh, BTW I think the people and authorities of the area are behaving very well.

Almost like they had a plan, and are following it.
Written By: Keith_Indy
"And how many acres of wilderness do you suggest we burn every year? The local geography makes that impractical, at best"

I’m not suggesting you burn any. I’m wondering why not if it is already on fire and lives/homes are not in danger, let the fire go and consume the fuel. If not this year, it will burn next year or the year after. If the fuel is gone that won’t happen (or to the extent it currently is).
Written By: markm
URL: http://

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