Escondido, CA
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10-year anniversary of countywide fire disaster

It’s been ten years since multiple fires ravaged San Diego County and forced many residents of Escondido to evacuate—although few ultimately saw their properties threatened by fire.

It starts in the evening as the warm breeze gently stirs the tops of the trees and electricity seems to increase in the air. It’s peaceful, almost restful, like the stirring on a Pacific island. That is an illusion.

You can experience this very same atmospheric quality this week throughout San Diego County.

By the middle of the night the stirring whips into a furious passage that tears at the limbs of trees, whipping them from side to side — you feel the branches tearing at the sides of your house like a raptor’s talons. You spring up in bed tense and alert. Then, you smell the smoke . . . or at least you think you do.

Countless nights in the past dozen years residents of Escondido, Valley Center and Palomar Mountain—and the rest of San Diego County— have had nights like that. Most of the time they have been false alarms. However, no one who has ever lived through the fires of 2003 or 2007 will ever look at Santa Ana winds ever the same. Most of the time when I feel such warm air on my cheeks I mutter, “Fire weather.”

On the night of Monday, October 21, 2007 Santa Ana winds began that would cause a fire to break out the following morning in Witch Creek, a few miles outside of Ramona.  Later that fire would reach San Diego city, where it combined with the Guejito fire, which broke out on the outskirts of Valley Center near Lake Wohlford, and threatened to sweep through Valley Center the same way fires four years before had done.

By Tuesday morning thousands of Valley Center residents were on the move, driving out of town and towards the coast. They had obeyed what was one of the first times that the Reverse 911 system was used locally to warn residents to flee.

Soon they were followed by many residents of Escondido.

By the end of the day most of Valley Center residents had evacuated. A few stayed behind to defend their homes. Fortunately for them, unlike in 2003, the fire of 2007 lapped around Valley Center, but never engulfed it.

Several times during the days that followed some parts of Escondido were ordered to evacuate, others were not.

Together all of the fires emblazoned a belt of devastation across the County. During that week, the following fires burned in the County: Rice Fire, 9,472 acres; Ammo Fire, 21,000 acres; Harris Fire, 90,440 acres; Witch Fire, 197,990 acres; Poomacha, 49,410 acres.

The last of the fires, and one that closely threatened this area as well, was the Poomacha Fire, that didn’t end until November 9, 2007, 19 days after the first fires had begun.

The San Diego County fires were part of a much larger devastation known as the Fall 2007 California Firestorm that burned 970,977 acres from Santa Barbara County to the U.S.–Mexico border.

Before the fires were through in San Diego their roiling waves would lap at the summit of Palomar Mountain and almost touch the beaches near Oceanside. At one time, there were so many fires going in so many areas that, from the top of Palomar it looked like most of the County had been hit by a bombing run.

For many residents, it was the beginning of an ordeal that would cause many thousands to evacuate their homes, some for a week or even two weeks.

All gigantic events are made up of small fragments that combine into the whole, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. But they are also ragged segments of lives ripped from the whole that are often incapable of being rejoined into the fabric of existence without torn edges that permit the lurid light of remembrance to shine through.

Many Escondido residents have stories to tell about the fires of 2007. The Times-Advocate hopes that some of them will contact us at editor@times-advocate.com and share them with us—so we can share them with our readers.

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