Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sunday on fire

Today is a scheduled day off, so I stayed up late Saturday night and slept late. I woke up after dark and went outside to my car, planning to make a run to Ralph's grocery store. I knew something was wrong -- there was a strong smell of smoke in the air, and a haze was all around. As I drove down Pershing on the way to the downtown Ralph's I turned on the radio and heard that the northeast suburbs are on fire. San Diego doesn't get hurricanes or tornadoes, and large earthquakes are extremely rare, but the one natural disaster we see are the wildfires. It's part of living in a desert.

We're having Santa Ana winds again, which means an east wind off the desert. Normally we get a cool, westerly breeze from the ocean, but when a high pressure system is around, the winds change direction. It's hot and very dry, which makes for dangerous fire conditions. Several sprang up this afternoon and went out of control. The towns in the foothills and mountains, like Ramona and Julian, are close to a raging inferno, with at least one dead and many injuries. Several homes have burned to the ground. The affected areas are being evacuated, and the schools have been closed for tomorrow. The Santa Ana winds are predicted to continue at least through tomorrow, which is very bad news.

Google Map here

The worst of the fires is being called the Witch Fire, named for its point of origin, near Witch Creek. It's an apt name, with Halloween 10 days away. Another big fire, called the Harris Fire, is along the USA-Mexico border near Tecate. It has crossed into Mexico, and the Tecate border crossing is closed.

I know most of the mountainous areas like the back of my hand. It's some of the best motorcycling territory around -- both on-road and off. I'm in the North Park neighborhood, right in San Diego, which is about a 1.5hr drive to the Witch Fire. Note: San Diego's mountains aren't huge like the Sierras or Rockies. The tallest point is about 7,000 feet (2100 meters). Snow falls in winter in the high elevations, but not enough for skiing and snowboarding.

From the San Diego Union-Tribune:

    An out-of-control wildfire burned more than 8,000 acres between Ramona and Santa Ysabel Sunday, and fire officials were requesting more resources to battle it.

    Two air tankers and 60 engines with 350 firefighters were battling the blaze, which has been named the Witch Fire, said Cal Fire spokeswoman Audrey Hagen. It earlier was called the Highway 78 Fire.

    State fire officials have requested 1,000 more firefighters be assigned to the blaze.

Compounding the problems with evacuations are the horses and livestock that people in the mountains keep. Everyone up there is used to fires, and they know how to pack and leave quickly, but packing up the large animals takes time. Traffic is thick, too.

This reminds me of the Cedar Fire from 2003. That was the last time I walked outside to see (and smell) smoke and ash. That fire destroyed around 2200 homes and took 15 lives. It was the worst fire in San Diego history.

From the Union-Tribune story:

    “This is almost a deja vu of the Cedar Fire,” Scales said, referring to the weather conditions. The Cedar Fire killed 15 people, destroyed more than 2,200 homes and burned more than 280,000 acres in October 2003.

    Many residents who live near Witch Creek and San Diego Country Estates have been evacuated, and residents are being told to go to a Red Cross shelter at Poway High School on Espola Road at Titan Way, county emergency officials said.

The weather forecast for tomorrow looks extremely bad, with 9% humidity expected around noon. The winds will be down around 10 mph.

San Diego Union-Tribune
San Diego weather forecast
Cedar Fire memorial, with statistics

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