Instinct and error

We humans have a well placed instinct to fear fire. We also all have a tendency to err. We had quite an experience with both instinct and error this week. But first, a little background.

We have lived at the property we affectionately call the finca, Ladera Frutal, since the summer of 2002. It is located in Bonsall, south of state route 76 and west of interstate 15. I felt this area was as safe as any semi-rural part of this dangerous county could be, and that’s one of the reasons we chose to move here, rather than Fallbrook, Coronado Hills (San Marcos), or Harmony Grove. Those were all places we seriously considered, to the point of looking closely at minute details of property history and legal issues in some cases. Those are all places that were evacuated and seriously threatened or even burned this week.

Our own little corner of Bonsall is fairly well protected. Instinct tells me that a fire is a fairly low risk here. We have many acres of avocado groves all around us. For example, see the banner photo above [update: the old banner], where you can see that the whole area above our house is covered with groves. (This view is almost due north, from the canyon bottom below, and you can see that most of south and eastern slopes of Mt. Ararat are indeed covered with avocado trees.) Avocado trees will burn, of course, but they burn rather slowly, because they have thick leathery leaves and healthy avo trees are full of water (as I am reminded every time the monthly water bill comes in). The Santa Ana winds–those fierce, drying winds that come mainly the northeast and mainly in fall and winter–blow less strongly here than most of the canyon areas of southern California, because the canyon we are in is one of the few in the area that drains from the southeast and then runs due west. Winds can be so strong up near highway 76 (which runs in the San Luis Rey river canyon, which in turn drains from northeast to southwest) that you can barely stand up, while here they will be much weaker. (Parts of Fallbrook this week had 50+ MPH gusts, while our greatest was 21.) Between us and the most at-risk areas, there are not only lots of avocado trees, but also wetlands. So, of course a fire could come and devastate this area. It is in San Diego County, and the whole county is at risk. But instinctively, I feel this area is pretty safe–for a semi-rural portion of this region. Yet this week, there was good reason to doubt one’s sense of safety, to feel a fire was unlikely here was to engaged in complacency.

With the ‘Rice’ fire–named after the beautiful and lush north-south canyon with “one of the least improved through roads in the county” to our northeast where arcing power lines ignited dry brush ((I saw an interview with the head firefighter for the region, in which he said it was downed power lines that sparked the fire. But later, the SD emergency website posted a notice that the Rice fire was “human caused,” but that there were no further details yet.))–quite close and with our finca downwind of it, we were getting fairly concerned by Monday afternoon. The most worrisome news up to this point was the burning of parts of the Pala Mesa Resort, which is about 4.5 miles northeast of us.

At least one of us was up through the night both Monday and Tuesday. Finally, at 1:00 on Wednesday morning, Merry woke me and told me that the TV had listed Bonsall as under mandatory evacuation. I went to the SD emergency website and it showed an order for Bonsall north of 76. We are south, so we appeared not to be under threat from a fire burning about 3 miles north but moving west, nor under orders to get out. Instinct said we were safe. And there were stars in the sky and a beautifully clear view of the moon, and absolutely no wind. All common sense said that, despite ash floating in the air, there was no fire close enough to be an imminent threat and no weather conditions that would allow one to rip through the wide and wet riverbed and many thousands of avocado trees between the Rice fire and us.

But conditions can change rapidly, and there were some occasional wind gusts on an otherwise calm night. I stayed at the computer, monitoring a discussion forum at the North County Times website (which includes good maps of the fires). This on-line forum was a great resource, a real community service by this newspaper. There was notice there about evacuation for all of Bonsall posted by their reporter who was moderating the discussion. I asked if he had information regarding an evacuation order other than the SD emergency news release and he said no, apologizing that he misread the statement regarding parts of Bonsall, rather than all of it. (By area, if not by population, by far most of Bonsall is south of 76, but the only indications of “Bonsall” on the Thomas Bros. maps –the standard map resource in these parts–are on the north side, so the error is easy to make.)

Then shortly after 3:00 a.m., two people posted that there were reverse 911 calls ((We would learn shortly that such a call–which we worriedly were awaiting–does not go to unlisted numbers unless you have taken the initiative to register your number with the county emergency office. Who knew? Perhaps everyone but us.)) going to areas very close to us and that 211 (the county’s fire-information hot line) was telling people that all of Bonsall was being evacuated, as the fire had jumped Hwy 76 at Gird Road (more or less due north, and barely over 2 miles away).

It was no longer difficult to imagine that winds could pick up around sunrise (as the forecast at the time suggested) and that the fire could race up the southern wall of the San Luis Rey valley, which has many areas of high brush. Because fire naturally burns faster uphill than down, it would not even take significant winds for it to advance this way. If it did that, it could come up any of the several small canyons that have brush in them and that would channel winds, including the winds made by the fire itself. The northern and western sides of Mt. Ararat are less irrigated and planted, and have a lot of brush. Such a fire would still have to get through a lot of groves–the closest of which was being irrigated all that night–before it would get to us. But by the time it reached the crest of Ararat it would be only about half a mile away. Narrow canyons leading down from there could cut off escape routes even sooner than the fire could reach us. The disaster scenario was now seeming quite real.

I called 211 shortly after 4:00 and identified my location as south of 76, and the operator said that we were required to have been out hours ago! So, we got belongings together (really essential things had been in the car since Monday, in case something happened without notice), caged four of the five cats ((The fifth had to be loose in the car; we’ll have to be sure to get a fifth carrier just in case this happens again. We hadn’t really prepared for the “finca feline” who came with the property, stays outdoors other than during freeze or current smoke conditions, and would not even let us near her for almost four years before finally warming up to us and revealing what a nice cat she is after all.)), and were out by 5:00.

Only later did I realize that by 4:30, everyone on the NCT on-line discussion forum was aware that the reverse 911 calls, the report of the fire crossing 76, and the info that all of Bonsall was ordered to evacuate were all in error. We never had to get out. My instinct was right all along that there was no real risk here from this event. But there had been the risk that we were being complacent, and there was the instinctive fear of fire and the fear that it was I, and not the emergency operators, who was in error. It is certainly better to evacuate unnecessarily than to wait till it might be too late.

The eight of us (three humans and five felines) went to my mother-in-law’s place in Vista–only about 20 minutes away but in an area with no threat–for several hours after 5:00 a.m. Wednesday. We are back home safe now. There was no fire here. And there is currently no risk to any of Bonsall. The Rice fire is still mostly un-contained, but is burning now only on the north and east side of Fallbrook, mostly in unpopulated areas of the rugged and wild Santa Margarita River valley (where the first railroad to San Diego once ran). The ash and sooty grime are unbelievable for an area that did not have its own fire–far worse than in 2003. And the air quality is awful, but not as bad as it was Tuesday, nor has it been as bad as it was for two days in 2003. It has been a miserable week. But it has not been nearly as bad for us as for a half million or so others in the county who evacuated, nor for those whose homes were among the hundreds destroyed (and others still threatened). We are fortunate to have avoided real danger.

Thanks to the many colleagues, friends, family and those I “know” only because you read this blog for your expressions of concern. I am sorry for the extended absence here. I did not reconnect the computer till today, being simply too exhausted and overwhelmed with the experience to do much of anything. Fortunately, there is the World Series to help get back to normal, and last night it got off to pretty much exactly the start I expected. Welcome, Rockies, to the big leagues!!

0 thoughts on “Instinct and error

  1. I’m glad you’re safe. And the cats, too (my wife and I also have a small menagerie of them).

  2. Living in Crest just east of El Cajon, our area was devastated in 2003, but we hardly got any smoke or ashes this time around. Nevertheless, it was a stressful week for all. By the way, in 2003, our home survived, while 2 closest neighbor’s burned down.

  3. Doug, it is good to know you are OK. At one point, I thought I heard that Crest was threatened again. We have a staff member at my department who has lived in Crest for many years and been through several fires.

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