Thursday, October 25, 2007



I went to sleep Sunday night feeling safe in my home. The wildfires burning in San Diego County were too far away, especially the Witch Creek Fire near Ramona, about 30 miles away. How wrong could I be! As I slept, the Santa Ana winds continued to blow west fueling the fire (see previous blog post 10/21) and causing it to advance over the bone dry hills, valleys, and canyons towards the coast and destroying hundreds of homes in its wake. The phone rang at 5:30. It was my cousin Greg; His family had to evacuate their home in Poway down the mountain from Ramona. About two hours later, the phone rang: it was my sister. Her family had to evacuate their home in Escondido (about 20 miles to the northeast of us). They were headed to our house. Less than a half hour later, the phone rang again. It was a reverse 911 message telling us to evacuate. I couldn't believe it. My mom woke my nurse, Ernie, who was sleeping in the guest room between shifts. He quickly got me up in my wheelchair, gathered some supplies, and we were out of the house.

Outside there was a fog of smoke and ash, obscuring the sun and creating an eerie, orange glow. The winds were gusting and ashes were raining down all over the place. I hurried into my van. The windshield was covered with soot. We drove out. My mom followed behind in her car; my dad decided to stay behind. The driveway was littered with twigs,branches and leaves blown down by the strong winds. As we drove out of town the ash continued to fall and eddys of ash and soot swirled around.The roads were covered with a layer of soot and ash. We drove straight to Scripps Memorial Hospital in Encinitas. I was supposed to go to the evacuation center at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, but I was afraid they wouldn't have the proper accommodations for me.

Once at the hospital I rushed inside. The smoke made its way into the E.R. waiting room. I took refuge in the radiology department waiting room. While there I picked up x-rays and CT scans for my medical procedure Thursday. I had planned to go there today anyway. They were nice enough to let me hang out there all day. I spent most of the time following the news of the fire on the radio. Another fire in Fallbrook (in the northernmost part of San Diego County) forced Ernie's family to evacuate their home. He stayed with me. Fires were blazing all over the county. It was unbelievable. It was getting worse by the minute. My dad finally left the house and went to a family friends house in Leucadia, near the coast. My mom was already there with her cat, Sassy, and my cat, Lucky. Also, my sister was there with my niece and nephews, one of their dogs and the turtle. Her husband stayed behind with their other dog, two rabbits, and the bullfrogs.

That evening I was informed that I had to leave the hospital because it wasn't an evacuation center. They suggested I find a motel or hotel. There was not a room to be found; because of the fires burning all over the county, about 250,000 people were evacuating. My sister contacted her neighbor, who is on the Board of Directors of Scripps hospital. He called the hospital and told them I was staying the night. It helps to pull some strings. They gave me a bed in the corner of the E.R. overflow unit. They bent over backwards to make sure that Ernie and I were comfortable.


After a restless sleep worrying about whether I had a house to return to, I woke up at 5:00 and turned on the news. A reporter was reporting from my town of Rancho Santa Fe. Houses were burning up the street from my house. I had a sinking feeling in my gut. Later, a social worker told me I had to find other accommodations. They only allowed me one night. She was very helpful. She found me a place to stay after calling around and even called some of my medical supply companies to have supplies sent to the hotel. She tried to see if some board and care places would take me in, but they wouldn't take me because I had a feeding tube. I have no idea why not. She found a hotel called California Suites in San Diego, away from the fires. I drove down there, settled in and watched the news. Houses had burned on streets near my house. I wasn't sure if my house had survived the early morning firestorm.

The father of one of my classmates from my town, Dr. Buncher and his brother Martin contacted my mother and asked if I got everything I needed from the house. My mom told them I left my bedside ventilator, bedside suction machine, and clothes. They got through the roadblocks by dressing as firefighters (Martin used to be a volunteer firefighter and had uniforms). They made it to our house and called my mom to tell her they were standing in our living room. Our house had survived the early morning firestorm intact. I felt great relief, yet some trepidation; we weren't completely out of the woods yet. The Santa Ana winds were still blowing, and there were still hot spots that could flare up and start new fires. My dad got my equipment and delivered it to the hotel.

My sister told me that our house was threatened by the firestorm. Flying embers ignited trees near our house. The firefighters got on our roof and made a stand against the fire. Thanks to their actions they saved our house and others in the immediate area.


Today I was still not allowed to return home. There were still many hot spots that could flare up. My parents got through the roadblocks and went to the house to get more of my things. The house still stood. It was undamaged. What a relief that was! We dodged a bullet.

To pass the time Ernie and I decided to drive up the coast to Oceanside. Before driving the coast we drove inland towards my house to see if they would let us through; Ernie left some medicine at my house. As we neared my town we met the roadblock. There was a National Guard Humvee with armed soldiers standing nearby. They were there to keep people, especially looters, out of the area. They wouldn't let us pass. We turned around and tried to get in through another street. We were met by another National Guard roadblock. The soldier politely turned us away. We gave up our quest and decided to continue on to the coast. It was nice driving along the coast. The air was a little bit better but the sun was still obscured by smoke. In Oceanside we stopped at the hotel where Ernie's family evacuated to. We visited with them for a while. Then we went to Costco, where Ernie bought food for his family, and I picked up some more things I needed. After dropping off the food we drove back down to the hotel. On the way back we tried to get into my town again by another route. At the National Guard roadblock we were turned back yet again. This proved to me they were doing a good job protecting our community. Looters would have loved to get into my community. Also, they were keeping us safe. There was still danger from hot spots. Back at the hotel I watched the news coverage of the fires, trying to find out when my town would reopen. I slept well that night with the knowledge that I would have a home to go back to.


This morning as I wondered if I would go home, I was also a little nervous about my medical procedure today to remove scar tissue from my trachea. The phone rang: it was the UCSD Medical Center. My procedure was cancelled because the doctor had a family emergency. Now my thoughts were focused solely on going home. I waited in the hotel room to get the green light to return home. I watched the news anxious to find out when I could return home. After what seemed an eternity, my mom called to give me the good news: we could go home! Ernie packed up my stuff and when my dad arrived they loaded my stuff into his car and my van. With little delay we were headed home. It was a great feeling to drive up the driveway and see the house standing there. It was even better to be in the familiar surroundings of my home. Though I was elated to be home, I felt sad for those in my town and around the County who didn't have homes to return to. Over 1500 homes were lost in San Diego County to the fires. The nerve wracking ordeal was finally over. Every time the Santa Ana winds blow from the east there will be anxious feelings and fears of another conflagration. I hope we don't go through this ordeal again anytime soon.

Additional Comments

My nurse, Ernie stayed with me the whole time I was evacuated and remained calm and collected. Even though his wife and kids had also evacuated their home, he chose to stay and take care of me. His loyalty and consideration is commendable. I am lucky to have a nurse like him.

On a somber note. My thoughts go out to our friends Michelle and Mack and their children, Michael and Mellissa who lost everything as a firestorm destroyed their house. I hope all the best for them as they and their children rebuild their lives from the ashes.

I am also very thankful to the firefighters for working day and night in oftentimes grueling conditions in their fight to stop this beast of a fire and to try to save homes. We should always be grateful for the service these firefighters give to us. Hats off to all of them. To me and countless other people they are heroes.


Kimi said...

Glad you are safe!

Ruth said...

Thanks John for posting about your experiences. I linked to this post over at my blog because you explained so well the situation anyone with a disability that requires equipment and/or care can face in an evacuation. I think your writing really can help others. Take care and I'm glad you're okay.

Twofer said...

Hi John,

I found your blog through ruth. I'd follow her just about anywhere! I'm pleased to *meet* you and look forward to staying in touch. And I too am glad you and your loved ones are safe.