The Fire, Day Five
SO FAR, SO GOOD,” I say to Susan (my wife), switching to four-wheel drive as the pavement ends and the gravel road begins. Two days after the Cedar Fire chased us from our home in Cuyamaca Woods (Julian, California), Susan and I are headed back up the mountain. We’re antsy to find out what happened to our community and to our home. We tried calling information hot lines, we listened to news reports, and we spoke to evacuated neighbors . . . all to no avail. The entire community is in the dark and anxious to know whether our homes are still standing.
Susan and I have decided to find out for ourselves. We knew Highway 79, the main access road, would be closed, but I know a back way into Cuyamaca Woods on a dirt road through the Viejas Indian Reservation. I explored the area as a teenager, and Susan and I hiked parts of it during her training for the 3-Day Cancer Walk. We doubted there would be any roadblocks on these back roads.
We left the basement of Beth’s house (my sister and our temporary place of refuge) at six this morning before the morning rush hour and, on the way, stopped at a feed-and-grain to pick up a few supplies. We’d like to fill up the pond and spread some food around for the animals. We figured the wildlife, if any have survived, would be thirsty and hungry. We’re presently driving through a lush green area of gorgeous Black oaks and thick, flowing emerald grasses. Reports were that the Cedar Fire burned south into the Viejas Indian Reservation, but, as of yet, we see no signs of it.
Cresting a small rise in the gravel road, I make a sharp turn to the left . . . and, there . . . not twenty feet ahead . . . I see it. Hurriedly stomping on the brake pedal, I bring our vehicle to a skidding halt. Susan and I can’t believe what we’re looking at. Our mouths hang open, and our eyes open wide as we stare out at the nothingness of one naked, burned-out rolling hill after another naked, burned-out rolling hill fading off into the distance as far as the eye can see. The hills are completely denuded of all plant life and are covered in a thick, dark gray ash. It reminds me of a picture I saw in grade school of what the earth would look like after a nuclear attack. The power and the enormity of what we’re looking at is staggering.
“Whooooaa, Babe-O,” I mumble (my pet name for Susan).
“Whooooaa, Bub,” Susan mumbles back (her pet name for me).
Neither of us knows what to say. We don’t have the words to describe the devastation we’re looking at. We’re stunned by the abrupt change in the landscape and awed by the force it took to create such a change. One moment we’re in a beautiful, green, landscaped paradise and the next, total destruction. It’s as if someone drew a line on the ground and declared, “This side will burn, this side will not.”
“Whooooaa, Babe-O,” I repeat.
We still have a forty-five-minute drive on gravel roads before reaching Cuyamaca Woods. Continuing on through the ash-covered hills, we pass blackened masonry chimneys ― headstones marking the spot of deceased houses. We see thick steel guardrails that once lined the roads now charred, twisted, and bent like pretzels. The wooden guardrail posts have completely disappeared. Power poles are burned to the ground, and the power and telephone lines have vanished, melted into the ash. Steel road signs are bent, corroded, and melted into unrecognizable forms. Driveways lead to empty lots, in some cases not even a chimney standing, the houses completely disintegrated.
It’s utterly silent, no bird noises, no leaves rustling in the wind, no neighbors making neighborly noises, no sounds other than the soft crunching of our tires on the gravel road. It feels unnatural being the only ones in this huge area of silent devastation.
Fifteen minutes later, we come across a pocket of green vegetation; oaks, Manzanita brush, grasses, and a small shed, totally untouched by the fire. It’s a green oasis in the middle of a blackened moonscape. How this oasis survived, I have no idea.
A few miles further, we come across a beat-up old Ford pickup parked by the side of the road. A rancher and his wife are sitting in the cab. Rolling down her window, Susan says, “Everything okay?”
“Seeing if any of our cattle survived,” says the old rancher. “We had eighty head. Didn’t have time to move them before the fires hit. That wind was fierce.”
“Any luck?” asked Susan.
“Not yet. If you see any along the road, honk your horn and we’ll come and get ’em.”
“We’ll keep our eyes peeled,” Susan replies.
Susan and I hope the rancher and his wife find their cattle, but I can’t see how anything could have survived this fire.
The further we drive into this ash-covered land, the more the emptiness of the hillsides begins to grow on me. I’ve recovered from the initial shock, and I’m starting to see a beauty in the gray starkness of it all. In a small valley that used to be a grove of Black oaks, now stand only acre upon acre of blackened oak skeletons, not a green leaf in sight. The oaks resemble dancers frozen in space, with the morning sun casting long gray skeletal shadows onto the gray ash covering the ground. A clear blue sky contrasts above.
“If any house has made it through the fire, I hope it’s Jimmy’s and Marge’s (our neighbors),” says Susan. “They’ve lived here longer than anyone, and they’re older. It would be much tougher for them to start over.”
I haven’t been thinking of our house since entering the burned area. I’ve been distracted by the power of the Cedar Fire and by the beauty and devastation of the terrain. Susan’s comment has reminded me of why we’ve come.
“I love you, Babe-O for thinking of our neighbors,” I say, squeezing Susan’s thigh.
We’re approaching Cuyamaca Woods from the downhill side of the valley, and I know as soon as we round the next bend we should be able to look up to a hillside a mile or so to our right to see if our house is still standing. I’m confident our house will be there, even after driving through this gray moonscape. My gut tells me it’s there. We’ve also passed a few more oases of greenery; a few houses have survived.
Rounding the next turn, we roll to a stop. It takes a moment for me to get my bearings and to realize that this unrecognizable valley is really our Cuyamaca Woods. The hills, the valleys, the ravines that two days ago were covered in thick stands of oaks and pines, are now completely barren, stripped to the bone and reduced to dark ash. Everything looks much closer and more exposed than I remember.
In the hope of recognizing which of these distant gray hills is ours, I place my arms on the steering wheel, lean forward, and peer through the windshield. I don’t recognize anything . . . and then I see it. Three-quarters of the way up a charred hillside sits . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
(FOR THE CONCLUSION OF THIS CHAPTER, PLEASE GO TO PAGE 433 OF THE BOOK: LOOKS EASY ENOUGH.