Friday, October 26, 2007

What's Right About America

Readers of this blog know that I do not spend much time flag-waving or singing "God Bless America". I generally find the situation in our country less that satisfactory.

I'm going to take a time-out from my usual rants against George Bush and his ilk to comment on what I think really makes America the "idea" that the rest of the world looks to. It's pretty simple really. It's our people and their behavior in a time of crisis.

Our country has taken a few hits recently. Whether it's tornadoes raging through the Midwest, or hurricanes devastating the gulf coast, or it's the hellish infernos that engulfed southern California this past week, it seems that we've been through our share of grief and misfortune.

What's heartening though, and I'm granting you it would be much better to see this without first having to go through some major tragedy, is the reaction of our people to the situation.

In Southern California over the last week hundreds of thousands of lives have been disrupted, hundreds of millions of dollars of property has been destroyed and, tragically, a few people have lost their lives. All the while this was going on, people were rushing to the aid of their friends, neighbors, relatives and hell, even strangers they never met. Homes that were not in danger of the fire were opened to those who had lost property. Our people responded in a fashion that illustrated "the better angels of our nature".

Firefighters from across the country came to the aid of their cousins in California and did what they do best. They walked into the face of death and destruction and they worked to the point of exhaustion. They risked their lives to save property of people they never knew and likely never will know. What kind of person does this? A damned good one in my opinion.

Medical professionals, police, artists, therapists, hoteliers, and many others have been providing support to those in need. Whether they are staying at Qualcomm stadium and being entertained by roving jugglers and clowns, or getting care in one of the many hospitals, or just getting a shower and a safe place to sleep, our brothers and sisters displaced by this fire (and now it looks like an intentional fire) are getting some help.

I work for a firm headquartered in San Diego. I won't name them because my writings on this site in general would embarrass them and I have no intention of doing so. Anyway, my firm jumped into action and set up communications mechanisms to insure the safety of the several thousand that work in the area. They shut down the offices and told our people to stay home. Internal communications were extensive in keeping the rest of us up to date on the safety of our colleagues. They have set up a mechanism to provide support for those who have been affected by the fires. I'm proud of the company and the people who stepped up. Again, it's an example of what's right about us.

The following is an excerpt written by a friend of mine who I work with in the aforementioned company. I won't name names for privacy sake, but want to let you know he is another example of what's good and right about our country. Take a few minutes to read his story and then, if you can and are of the means to do so, select one of the sites posted on the main page of this blog to provide support to those who have been impacted. Thank you. Here's the story:

The names have been changed and some edits applied to protect the privacy of the individuals mentioned in the story.

"As you likely know, it has been a difficult week for the residents of San Diego County.

I also must apologize to some of you I’m working with for my lack of attentiveness to work and your emails.

The distressing news that I have is that so many of our friends and neighbors from almost 40 years of living here in San Diego have lost their homes and personal belongings. This tragically includes one house on our small road – Purer Road. Unfortunately the owners also lost their Julian home 4 years ago in the Cedar fire. I had the sad task of being the one to tell one of my neighbors the news about their house and I spent the afternoon with him today sifting through the remains and then having a quiet beer with him and reflecting on all of the positive things that remain.

The good news is that the loss of life, still tragic, appears to be small. The other good news is that by the grace of God and the incredible efforts of the Escondido Fire Department, our neighborhood was saved at the brink from complete disaster.

The weather reports last Friday were ominous coming almost to the day 4 years ago of the Cedar fire in San Diego. A very strong Santa Anna condition (hot dry winds up to hurricane force blowing westward from the desert). The “red flag” fire danger warnings went out for Sunday through Wednesday. The local bureaucrats all went on TV and warned us of the possible danger, but also assured us that all the lessons had been learned from the previous fire and that we were prepared this time.

I stayed up late Sunday night multitasking poorly between watching the news reports of the two fires to the east and trying to do some work. I finally went up to bed around midnight but could not sleep well. I woke up again around 3 am and went downstairs and turned on the TV again. Watched and listened for about 2 minutes long enough to hear that an evacuation order had been issued by then for the San Pasqual Valley (about 3 miles east of our house). I woke up my wife and told her we really needed to start packing up the irreplaceable things and loading the cars. At about 4 am the reverse 911 call came to both our landlines almost simultaneously for the mandatory evacuation.

My wife and son headed off to a hotel in La Jolla (near work and school. lesson: book a room ASAP) and I said I’d follow as soon as I found the cat. Around dawn, after tearing the house apart for the first of many times trying to find the $(#&!@ cat, I decided I’d sit tight for a bit. The wind was blowing hard from almost directly north and the fire appeared to be heading south of us (again, déjà vu from the Cedar fire).

Around noon Monday, I think, the fire roared down the south side of Lake Hodges along the ridge separating the lake from the 4S Ranch and the Ralph’s Hacienda heading west towards the dam and the Del Dios Highway. This ridge probably had not burned for at least 60 years, so the sight of it burning off was just incredible – even through the pea soup smoke- from our house, which is about a mile north of it and across the lake. I redoubled my efforts to find the cat and then get out. News reports indicated that homes were being lost just to the east of us around the Westfield North County Fair shopping mall, which is just about 2 miles east of our house on the opposite side of Bernardo Mountain.

A neighbor came down the street and said that they were stuck with their 4 horses and no trailer. We “borrowed” a neighbor's 4 stall trailer and he and his girlfriend tried to get their horses in without luck. At that time I noticed that the neighbor’s 10 horses will still in their corrals at the end of the road. I called my son and had him get in contact with his Polo coach. She and a friend came over with their 4 horse trailer and we managed to get 3 of the 10 horses loaded. I called the county animal rescue and got an animal control officer to finally come out about 2 hours later. She assessed the situation and called in for 6 trailers. The officer was interviewed later in the day by the BBC for her horse rescue efforts this week.

About dusk Monday members of the Norco Horse Rescue organization (Norco is about 100 miles north of Escondido) arrived with 6 4-horse trailers and managed to load up the remaining 7 of the neighbor's animals.

I then helped my friends load up one of their foals and its mother into the trailer. My friend hauled them over to his condo and put them in the condo’s dog park. He came back and they decided to wait until loading up the other mother and foal.

If you think teenagers are recalcitrant, try getting a couple of horses that don’t want to go into a trailer. I’ve got the bruises and nips from kicking and biting horses to argue the point. (I’m not a horse person. Period.)

(editor note: I am a horse person, and own two. They are stubborn sons-of-bitches on a good day. It must have been a pain in the ass with all this stuff going on.)

Pretty tired so I decided to set the alarm for every couple of hours and check the news. I awoke at about 3 am to incredible radiant heat and a huge orange glow out in the park on the near hill by the boat dock. This time our side of the lake was burning fiercely. No one at all around and a huge fire burning down the north side of the lake towards me and also towards the community of Del Dios. I dialed 911 at least twice trying to get some fire department support out. One time they connected me to the Hemet FD (Hemet is about 150 miles northeast of here in the Imperial Valley). Finally around 3:30 am Tuesday morning two CDF trucks arrived down at the boat dock parking lot and set a backfire along the trail clearing between the parking lot going east towards I-15. I’ve never had to call 911 before, but I’m not at all impressed by my experiences this week. In call center lingo, they have a serious “triage” problem, in that the first tier of agents has a difficult time directing the problem to the right agency and they don’t seem to listen long enough to really ascertain where the request should be directed. Given cell phone location technology, they also should not to have to even ask you where you are – that wastes very valuable time and there is a quick technology solution to it.

The fire crew managed to stop the fire on the south side of the trail and at the parking lot to the west. Our neighbor below and between us and the lake, had returned and spent the night also. He and I collectively breathed a very short sigh of relief, thinking we’d just dodged the bullet.

Just before dawn it was apparent from the orange glow rising up above Bernardo Mountain to the east and the horrendous sound of exploding propane tanks that the fire had burned into the neighborhoods just east of the road. Shortly after the fire crested the top of Bernardo Mountain and started down and up the final ridge between us and the fire, a small finger of fire came around the base of Bernardo Mountain and started to burn through the remaining old growth in the river valley on the south (our) side of the river park trail. My neighbor and I stood in another neighbor's driveway (just above my house) and frantically dialed 911. There were no fire units on our street yet – they were all concentrated on stopping the fire along the Via Loma Vista ridge.

Too few resources and too much fire. That small finger of fire was what took the one house and then went on to devastate Del Dios. It skirted around a couple of the neighbor’s avocado groves and headed directly for our creek and my friend's house.

A fleet of sheriff’s cars came down Purer Road and tagged the houses for occupants and were forcing the remaining couple of neighbors out. I watched the 200 foot tall “fire tornadoes” in valley approaching my house less than a quarter mile away with a sense of resignation and decided to leave before the police found me. My neighbor, who had lived in his house, his only house and filled with his art collection, for 26 years, decided to stay.

I drove out and parked at the roadblock a mile or so from my street. I got out my laptop and connected to the web cameras at our house via my Sprint Aircard. My wife and son were watching from the hotel room on their computers. We watched the flames approach and waited with dread for the moment the cameras melted and stopped sending.

A few minutes later two Escondido Fire Department trucks arrived on the road, one of which backed into our driveway and the other into the neighbor’s.

Our house is new and “class A” fireproof and follows all the “defensive able” guidelines, but it would have been no match for this hot a fire had it reached the house, as evidenced by all of other such houses burned this week.

I found a couple of other neighbors at the roadblock – and we decided to drive around the back way and try to get back to the street in my neighbor's pickup. I knew from the webcam that the house was still there and that the fire had passed.

My neighbor and I spend the remainder of Tuesday afternoon putting out hot spots around his house, in our creek and down at another home's wreckage. The fire crews left to work the fire that was bearing down on Del Dios and which ended up devastating that small, historic “fish camp” community. All afternoon a dozen helicopters made a continuous circle dipping into the lake and then dumping water on the fire still racing towards Rancho Santa Fe and Elfin Forest to the west.

Wednesday my wife and son “snuck in” and brought me a car, as I’d left mine at the roadblock. My son and I commandeered a fire hose to add to ours and hauled garden hoses and the fire hose in the truck down to the two creeks that were still smoldering. I spent the day pretty much up to my knees in horse manure with a 2 inch fire hose trying to put out smoldering piles of it all around at the ranch where the aforementioned horses were. (10 horses apparently eat a lot with resultant appropriate quantities of waste…) The concern by all by Wednesday afternoon was that the wind was shifting to the normal onshore sea breeze from the southwest and the remaining embers would start blowing up towards the remaining brush up the hills and around our houses. The manure around the remaining trees was igniting them. A two inch diameter hose is pretty small for a “real” fireman, but I have a real appreciation now for that profession. Try sliding around on a bank of sh*t trying to direct 300-plus pounds of water pressure.

Today we spent dousing more hot spots, taking the remaining feed to the horses and coiling up the thousand or so feet of fire hose we had down in the arroyo.

Tomorrow the cleaning and clean-up begins.

I can’t recommend staying in the face of a mandatory evacuation and I made a decision to leave given the final circumstance. But here’s the dilemma that needs to be faced: In a catastrophic situation like this, there simply aren’t enough fire personnel resources or equipment to go around. It was clear to me on at least three occasions that fire command did not have knowledge of the situation around our neighborhood. I think in these circumstances, there needs to be a mechanism to train volunteers to assume such a spotting duty and accept some level of risk associated with that. Sadly we have heard today that two people apparently perished by staying in their home and not heeding the evacuation warning. I think that the way to avoid this happening is to have each neighborhood have such a designated, trained “spotter”, who has the training and authority to call in resources when needed, and in a timely manner (this is key). And who the neighborhood trusts to look out for their specific interests, so that the rest of the residents can feel comfortable in leaving.

One other thing I don’t really understand is that given our military’s ability to wage aerial battle under complex weather and logistical conditions as severe as or more so than those in a fire situation, why we can’t apply such technology to allow nighttime aerial firefighting? If you watch the video of these fires, you rapidly understand that the only action we can take at the time of the fire that has any effect on such raging infernos is dropping large quantities of water on the fire front. In my novice opinion, had water been dropped just before dawn in the narrow neck of the park between our house and the boat ramp parking lot, I don’t think the fire would have progressed beyond there into Del Dios and onward to RSF and Elfin Forest Tuesday afternoon and evening.

I and my family were very lucky this time. We are very cognizant of and saddened by the results to others that were not so this time around however.

On a final note, I have the honor of being on the board of the San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy. Sadly it appears that almost all of the 55 miles of the river valley from near Julian to Del Mar has been devastated by the Witch Creek fire. We lost the River Park headquarters and the historic Sikes Adobe House. Although wildfires are natural occurrences in this area historically, the loss of wildlife habitat and the resultant ash and pollutant contamination of the river is going to be an environmental disaster in addition to the billion dollar plus financial and life losses already seen.

Please, donate what you can and tell others to visit the site and read this remarkable story. As I said at the start of the post, this is an example of what's right about America. It's often hard to find given all the information and evidence to the contrary.

All our good thoughts and prayers to our friends and colleagues in California.


ps. I'll be back to ripping the nuts of George and his merry band of nitwits soon enough. Today, let's do something to help.

No comments:

Post a Comment