San Diego skyline with the Witch Creek Fire in the background; October 2007. (Wikipedia)
Late Tuesday afternoon, while getting ready to leave for a couple appointments, my friend Claudia sent a text asking, “Are you OK?”
That was puzzling. So I replied yes and asked hey why she was asking? As it turns out she saw news of wildfires in my area. It’s embarrassing; I wasn’t following the news so I didn’t know.
Digging a little deeper into it the news said the fire had started in the Rancho Bernardo area and moved into the Rancho Peñasquitos neighborhood. Hence the name of the fire is the “Bernardo” fire, if anyone not familiar with the area wants to know how the fire got its name.
My friend Colin lives in Rancho Peñasquitos and he said he had been out Tuesday morning and when he got within a couple blocks of his home the streets were filled with smoke. When he got home he could see the fire, not the smoke, but the fire just a few hundred yards behind his backyard
The fire had moved even further west into the Rancho Santa Fe area, one of the most exclusive communities in the San Diego region. First of all it was troubling to hear people laugh about rich people possibly losing their homes. Fires don’t discriminate and if it can burn 30 million dollar estates in Rancho Santa Fe it can move to other areas and burn far more modest neighborhoods too.
Seeing your neighborhood on fire will freak you out. Ten and a half years ago the Cedar fire tore through San Diego County, destroying thousands of structures and killing 15 people. For three days the county and City of San Diego was bunkered in locations we all hoped were safe.
Hoped because the fire, which started on a Saturday night in the Cleveland National Forest, which itself is in the Eastern part of the county, approximately 35 miles from where my brother Carl and I were living in the Saber Springs area of San Diego, had, by 7 a.m. the next morning (October 25, 2003) had advanced so far west the air in our neighborhood was engulfed in smoke.
I had to be at work that morning, but wanted to get a short bike ride in before work. Walking out to an orange sky was weird, but there was no mistaking the smell of smoke. So I woke Carl and turned on the television. Our area was surrounded on three sides by a raging fire that many thought might not be contained until it reached the ocean. I called in to work to let them know that if I tried to head to work the law enforcement would force me to turn around and travel in the opposite direction.
It burned 280,278 acres, about 438 square miles. Roughly 11 percent of San Diego’s total area for the better part of four days.
Unlike our neighbors in that condo complex, my brother Carl and I chose to stay put, our second floor condo half covered by the boughs of trees that would most certainly burn if the fire had made it’s way through Poway to the I-15. It did stop about six miles east of us, but I packed suitcases for the two of us and promised Carl that if push came to shove, I would carry him to my car rather than leave him. Carl took one of those, “I’m not going anywhere” stances that, if all goes well, sound silly. If things don’t go well, it becomes a tragedy.
We sat alone in that community for three days; if we walked up and down the street nearly every parking space was empty and every now and then a police car of fire engine would go screaming past on Sabre Springs Parkway. We could see the staging area on Poway Rd — but mostly we stayed inside because the smoke outside was so thick it made breathing nearly impossible.
When we were finally given the green light from the authorities to return to our homes, our neighbors slowly began to return. Some of them thought Carl and I were crazy for staying. Well, who can argue? We ventured out to the world, to see what was left. The homes of friends were ashes; whole sections of Scripps Ranch, less than two miles south of us, were all but gone.
Believe it or not, Marine Corps Air Station Miramar had to be evacuated because the fire had jumped over the I-15 and started burning the brush lining the runways. TRACON, the building that housed the air traffic control for Southern California had to be closed and all workers evacuated. Literally, nearly everything around it was burning.
Several of my friends lost everything. One, we think, took his life. He was so buried in grief over losing his two dogs, he just disappeared one day and we’ve never heard from him again.
The Cedar Fire had a terrible impact on San Diego and Southern California that people will never forget. Much the way many of us remember where we were when the Northridge earthquake hit in 1994 and the Loma Pieta in 1989 in the San Francisco Bay area.
We don’t forget because we are all vulnerable. Just a year ago fires in Ventura County and North L.A. County reached the Pacific Ocean and threatened Malibu, one of the most mythologized communities in America.
In 2007 San Diego County was hit again by two major fires: the Witch Fire in the north and the Harris Fire which skirted the border with Mexico and those were nearly as destructive as the Cedar Fire. We’ve had our share of fires in the past 11 years.
Now we are facing new fires: nine were reported to be burning on Wednesday and fires that were thought to have been contained burst back to life.
Wildfires are a natural event. They occurred before Europeans came to North America and will continue. The difference today is that they happen with more frequency and are far more devastating than years past. The main reason being: we are experiencing record droughts throughout California and the rest of America’s West.
Water levels are drastically depleted everywhere. We can see the “normal” water lines of our lakes, yards above where they are now. You don’t need to be a scientist to know something different is going on. In the 1990’s we were more likely to have flooding due to heavy rains and melt off of heavy snow in the mountains than springtime wildfires. In my first 11 years in San Diego we have several years filled with stories of flooding in the spring. For at least the past 12 years we’ve suffered a drought and a shift in the climate that now brings us Santa Ana winds in the spring — along with wildfires. This shift in the climate is undeniably a result of global warming. The science is firmly irrefutable.
Despite this drought and the devastating wildfires it brings and the incredibly powerful and destructive tornadoes and hurricanes we’ve endured as a nation, there are those politicians who still want is to believe there’s no such thing as global warming. Marco Rubio, Republican teabagger from Florida tries to have it both ways. He said, “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it. And I do not believe that the laws that they propose we pass will do anything about it, except it will destroy our economy.”
So, even if climate change has been accelerated by human activity, there’s nothing we can do about it so there’s no point disturbing the status quo.
He knows climate change is real, admits to that, but it doesn’t bother him. The irony being as the oceans rise, his home city of Miami, FL will be one of the first to disappear into the Atlantic ocean — within this century too. Much of Miami will become uninhabitable in his lifetime — but he isn’t concerned.
Just yesterday NASA revealed satellite photos and analysis that shows the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has melt away so much it is past the point of no return. Professor Stefan Rahmstorf of Potsdam University called it “Scary. One of the feared tipping points of the climate system appears to have been crossed.”
Global warming is here, it is man-made, the science is irrefutable and if we don’t get a handle on it by ending our addiction to fossil fuels cities like Miami and New Orleans will disappear.
And San Diego, this is a coastal community too … but it might be welcome if it saves us from the wildfires that are definitely in our future.
•••• •••• ••••• •••• ••••
Authorities suspect some of the fires were acts of arson and one man in Oceanside, CA was arrested for adding brush to an existing fire, but fire officials are still not sure what caused any of the fires.
What we do know is that the Southwest has been suffering through a long drought which has made the grass and other flammable plant life all the more susceptible to wildfires. This means the fire season starts in spring, instead of late summer and we get Santa Ana winds in all seasons, instead of late summer and fall. They fuel the fires. The drought and the change in the climate, i.e. the Santa Anas, can be traced to the effects of global warming.
•••• •••• ••••• •••• ••••
Tim Forkes started as a writer on a small alternative college newspaper in Milwaukee called the Crazy Shepherd. Writing about entertainment issues, he had the opportunity to speak with many people in show business, from the very famous to the people struggling to find an audience. In 1992 Tim moved to San Diego, CA and pursued other interests, but remained a freelance writer. Upon arrival in Southern California he was struck by how the business of government and business was so intertwined, far more so than he had witnessed in Wisconsin. His interest in entertainment began to wane and the business of politics took its place. He had always been interested in politics, his mother had been a Democratic Party official in Milwaukee, WI, so he sat down to dinner with many of Wisconsin’s greatest political names of the 20th Century: William Proxmire and Clem Zablocki chief among them. As a Marine Corps veteran, Tim has a great interest in veteran affairs, primarily as they relate to the men and women serving and their families. As far as Tim is concerned, the military-industrial complex has enough support. How the men and women who serve are treated is reprehensible, while in the military and especially once they become veterans. Tim would like to help change that reality.