Feeling the Heat From Witch Creek

We packed up and left our San Diego home yesterday afternoon because we were worried that the Witch Creek fire was coming south. It's burned 165,000 acres and destroyed at least 500 homes. Last night the southerly march of the fire slowed down a bit, so we came home. It still seems to be inching southward, but not at an accelerated rate. We're staying indoors and monitoring the TV, but our two cars are packed and we're ready to go at any moment. We are in the strangest kind of limbo you can imagine. Limbo usually implies inertia. But in this limbo our stomachs are churning. It's really more like purgatory.

We are surrounded by these fires in San Diego. Four large fires are burning. A half-million people have evacuated. Closest to my home, the Witch Creek fire is to the north and east of us. The Harris fire, which has burned 70,000 acres, torched 200 homes and killed a person, is to the south. It's a nightmare. You feel completely helpless and defenseless. You hose down the house, monitor the TV.

Our Tierrasanta neighborhood is in a weird spot. We're on the northeast tip of San Diego before it becomes chaparral. To our north is the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, largely undeveloped chaparral that is very flammable. And it's the driest year in about 90 years. Everyone to the north of Miramar had to evacuate yesterday. We haven't been asked to evacuate, but we know from our experience with the devastating Cedar Fire in 2003 that the fire can move south toward us really fast.

We left home yesterday when the fire appeared to be heading our way. We came home last night about 11. Our neighborhood hadn't been declared part of the evacuation, and we debated for hours whether to go to a hotel or come home. Like everyone, we're strongly attached to our home. It was anguishing to leave without knowing if we would ever see it again. We feared we might not get the "reverse 911" notification to leave before fire swept onto our block. But we couldn't help hoping. Maybe the fire would miss us. And we felt—irrationally, maybe even irresponsibly—that if the fire did come, maybe if we were there we could save our home.

So we returned. We had left our home out of fear, and we returned out of fear. As we approached we could see the glow of flames in the north and east. Anxious, I stayed up until 2:30 in the morning monitoring the TV; my wife got up at 5 and took over. The fires for the most part laid down last night but rose again this morning when the wind came up.

When you pack to leave, it's hard to know what to take. I already had a drawer with all the documents and insurance, thanks to the last fire. I have five or six guitars, but I had room for only one. Then it was mostly pictures. We have a family wall filled with framed photos, ceiling to floor, and we took almost all of them. A lot of them are not replaceable: shots of my wife, Gabby, in grade school, my parents' wedding photos. The very last thing I packed was my computer. I don't have a laptop, so I took the whole thing.

From the beginning, on Sunday, I had a bad feeling about the Witch Creek fire, because it started in almost the same spot as the Cedar Fire four years ago that brought 50-foot flames within a couple of blocks of my house and destroyed two dozen nearby homes. Still, people I talk to at the supermarket are calm almost to a fault. When these things happen I jump—just in case. Some of these people are so mellow. They won't do anything until they get the call from emergency officials to evacuate.

We're ready if the call comes, but we're not necessarily going to wait. If we see the fire moving our way faster, we're out of here. I went outside yesterday and I saw my friend Carl, who was packing up some things too. I said, "Here we go again." He said he doesn't think it's going to burn this far south. I'm not sure that, deep down, he believes that.

My daughter, now seven, can tell how tense we are. She remembers the 2003 fire, when huge flames came within 100 yards of our car as we fled. Whenever she sees a fire on television, she's bothered by it again. Today we're keeping cartoons on one television and trying to keep her from getting more nervous. She keeps saying, "I just want to have a normal day, Daddy." We all do. Out of her earshot, my wife and I quietly discuss what else we should pack—and where we would live if we lost our home. Just asking the question feels devastating.

The fire is all around us. We watch and wait and hope. A half-million people are displaced, and hundreds of families have lost their homes to the flames. But we, at least for now, are still in our own home.