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Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Updated: October 25, 9:17 AM ET
'Smoke filled San Diego, and you could taste it'

By Mary Buckheit
Page 2

SAN DIEGO -- The smoky air quality in and around Qualcomm Stadium here forced the Chargers to seek refuge in Tempe, Ariz. for their practices this week.

Qualcomm, which also houses the San Diego State Aztecs, is serving as a shelter for about 15,000 evacuees in San Diego County.

Reports Wednesday afternoon indicated more than 1500 homes have been destroyed by the wildfires that are devastating this part of Southern California, with hundreds more still under threat. At least six people have died. Some 450,000 acres have burned and as many as 1 million people have been evacuated from their homes.

California fire
Fires burn near the San Diego area's Bonita neighborhood. Hundreds of thousands of residents have been forced to evacuate.
Among the thousands of San Diegans forced to evacuate are golfer Phil Mickelson and Chargers LaDainian Tomlinson, Marlon McCree, Matt Wilhelm and some 40 other players and staff.

The Padres' Trevor Hoffman had to evacuate. So did Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn.

I am a San Diego resident whose home so far has been spared.

If you spend much time outside in San Diego County right now, you will smell as though you'd spent the week huddled around a campfire. Even in "safe zones" of the city, you can feel the irritation in your throat and dryness of your eyes. The air is heavy and your breath is short. Floors and furniture inside are now covered with a layer of ashy cinder; and in the close quarters of neighborhoods, you can hear news reports in simulcast pouring out of open front doors. For now, America's Finest City is just hoping the winds will bring change and soon give way to a blaze of recovery.

In the meantime, this is what I've seen.

Wednesday
Fate has been thrown into the wind. Literally.

Like a Vegas dealer smearing a deck of cards across a felt table, so had the menacing Santa Ana winds been spreading flames around the city of San Diego. But a change is in the air; the Santa Anas, the dry, hot gusts of wind that flow down from the mountains and canyons, rushing through gaps in landforms, are subsiding.

For you folks back east or near Chicago, think of standing on a big city street between skyscrapers on a windy day and the air streams that flood the narrow street channels below.

Such is life in Southern California, where the Santa Ana winds have been known to clock in at 70 or 80 miles an hour during an especially dry spell when the air pressure permits. There are several weather certainties here: One is that it's usually sunny; another is the month of October harbors the most severe winds.


I get a call back from Scott Bentley, the GM of the Country Club of Rancho Bernardo. He tells me he and his family were evacuated from their home just as the golf course and clubhouse were evacuated since Monday.

I drove up to the town of Rancho Bernardo yesterday to check out what I could see around the community but I didn't get very far. Most intersections were completely closed to traffic and guarded by police officers and armed guards in camouflaged uniforms. Police cruisers and Army-issue Hummers blocked roadways and the few neighborhood folks who were still there were on foot and wearing hospital masks. Streets that I could access were covered in brush and trees were splintered where limbs had been ripped by winds.

From a relative's home in Phoenix, Bentley told me, "Our superintendent got in there today to water the course and have a look. He had to talk his way in because Rancho Bernardo is still shut down. He said there was wind damage and debris. About 60 trees had blown over and that is what caused most of our damage."

Bentley has been in the golf business a long time and says that from what he's seen in Southern California, golf courses often staunch flames because of their elaborate watering systems.

"Usually, they just don't burn," he says, before detailing a story of his buddy "Bucky" at the neighboring Rancho Bernardo Inn Golf Course. "David Buckles is the superintendent over there and he's always out working the greens and the sprinklers. He was at the course on Monday and he probably saved six or seven houses by turning the course sprinklers their way."

I give a call to the Rancho Bernardo Inn to try to reach our hero, Mr. Buckles. A man answered the line sounding hurried and when I asked him to put me through to Buckles, he apologized and said he happened to answer the phone but the course was still under mandatory evacuation and the staff was skeletal.

His fluster is an indication that we're by no means yet in the clear.


Shifts in wind patterns did slow the spread of the Witch Creek Fire, however. It's the largest of some 16 fires being tracked here and is estimated to have affected nearly 200,000 San Diego acres including those in Rancho Bernardo. Tuesday night, news was reporting that this blaze was still only 1 percent contained but a TV news bottom line scroll at 2 p.m. PT today informs us that the Witch Fire is now 10 percent contained. The scroll also confirms that close to one million people have been forced from their homes, making this the largest evacuation in California history.


In areas around downtown and in its neighborhood nooks where I live, you can tell the winds have changed. This morning as I stepped outside to get the paper I found my tile stoop covered in gray ash. And again, the smoke in the air was conspicuous. I think that if I weren't living here, the hardest thing to get my mind around would be the reports of poor air quality. I would probably be quick to dismiss this claim if I wasn't here to breathe it myself, but the issue is very real.

Exposure to four days of burning earth has left my throat feeling like I've been smoking a pack of unfiltered Marlboro Reds a day. Noses are bloody and my friends with contacts say it feels like their eyes might crust shut. It's no surprise that all athletic events have been canceled in the county. I have been calling high schools in the area to speak with athletic directors or football coaches to discuss the state of their student body and staff members. I call Oceanside and Poway and La Costa Canyon -- no answers. Visit the Web site of the top-ranked Oceanside Pirates and you are greeted with a bulletin message:

Visit the Web site of East County Sports and the top headline is not the recent upset in the standings or the athlete of the week, but an alert in a bright green bulletin box about all practices, games and tournaments being canceled through the weekend.

No practices, no games -- and perhaps most notably, no makeups. Not that anyone disagrees with the decision, but no matter how many thousands of miles you may live from Southern California, you can probably imagine the enormous effect that canceling games, meets and matches midseason -- without any intent to make up the competitions -- will have on teams, conferences, standings and the like.

But today in Southern California, canceling a high school football game without so much as a second thought stands as just another indication of life's priorities, shifting with the winds in the wake of this disaster.

Tuesday

Padres third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez live in safe zones and were not in danger of losing their homes. But they made the trip out to Qualcomm on Tuesday to help. Gonzalez, a San Diego native and alum of Eastlake High School in Chula Vista, said he was there to encourage the folks who weren't so fortunate.

I caught up with Gonzalez Tuesday evening.

"Obviously, the accommodations in a stadium parking lot aren't as good as you want them to be for these people," he said. "But I think the evacuees were really grateful for all the help and the food and drink that are available to them right now."

He told me he and Kouzmanoff were there making the rounds and lending a hand and, perhaps more importantly, an ear to the evacuees.

"We went to the area where the families and children were first," he said. "There were teachers there, too, who had volunteered to look after the kids. We took some pictures and signed autographs and then we just walked around and said hi to people and just tried to see how everyone was doing. We talked to them and listened to their stories. ... People came by and talked to us. We were just trying to encourage these people because they are going through some really tough times right now. Some had to go through this four years ago, and now they have to go through it all over again."

California fire
Cars ride the highway close to smoke billowing into the sky above where fires are spreading near houses in Stevenson Ranch, California.
Gonzalez was thrilled that he and Kouzmanoff were able to provide a few smiles.

"There were definitely some kids who were really excited to see us. And there were some adults who were happy, too. A few of them wanted to talk baseball. But mostly, we really just talked about where they live and what community they're coming from and how it's looking for them. Nobody was really talking about the World Series. A few people did ask who we thought would win, but I don't think they were too worried about missing the games, if it came to that. Qualcomm has TVs all over the place, so I'm sure they'll have a couple with the game on for the sports fans."

The biggest concern Gonzalez heard, he said, was the lack of information. Many people now housed in the parking-lot camp didn't know the specifics of the fate of their neighborhoods. They weren't sure when they would be allowed back in, and what to expect when they were. Even so, folks were overwhelmingly grateful to be safe, he said.

"For the most part, everyone is in good spirits and just thankful that they are OK and thankful for the help that the San Diego community has offered to them," Gonzalez said. "I think just being able to listen to them and hear what they've been going through was a relief of some kind.

"So many people are affected by this. A lot of our teammates and people in the [Padres] office have been affected. Actually, most of our friends and teammates live in Poway, Rancho Bernardo, Santa Luz, Rancho Santa Fe and Fairbanks Ranch area, so the first thing I did yesterday was call all of my friends to make sure everybody was all right. Eight or nine of them had been evacuated. It almost hit my family down in Chula Vista. It was going right at them, and they were actually in the voluntary evacuation zone. The fire kind of shifted north so I was thankful that my family escaped its path; but obviously, when it misses one community, it hits another. My family is fortunate. But unfortunately, their safety is another's loss, so it's kind of bittersweet knowing that my family is fine but there are so many others that are in danger. That's why so many people in San Diego are pitching in."


I call the Padres' front office. Their operations are entirely shut down.

Later that afternoon, I receive a call from George Stieren, the Padres' director of business public relations. He had been to his office at PetCo Park.

With his dog.

It was that kind of day in this city.

George told me about all the folks in the organization who had to evacuate. Manager Bud Black. Chairman John Moores. CEO Sandy Alderson. Pitchers Trevor Hoffman and Brett Tomko.

California fire
Firefighters battle a wildfire in the Del Dios area of Escondido, California. The Witch Fire, which started outside of Ramona, California, has forced over 300,00 to evacuate in what is being called San Diego's worst fire ever.
He said former Pads manager Bruce Bochy was vacationing in Paris when he heard his home was in danger, and his son Greg had to keep watch.

Stieren told me Phil Nevin's neighborhood was in danger. Nevin later told the San Diego Union-Tribune that his town of Poway "looks like Mars."

The area around PetCo, Steiren said, was "pretty calm." The Padres actually offered PetCo as an auxiliary relief shelter; but as of right now, the city has decided the present sites are sufficient. But the Red Cross took up the offer. It moved Cisco trucks and tents into one of the Padres parking lots at the corner of Imperial and Park, where they can cook and serve food to the city's police officers and firefighters.

Gonzalez, Kouzmanoff and several members of the Padres' front office went to Qualcomm to serve the evacuees. They brought extra beach blankets from their seasonal giveaway days, and boxes of toiletries that are used to stock the clubhouse.


I check up on my friend Marta, who lives up in San Marcos and works for Callaway Golf in their Carlsbad office. Work has been shut down all week, but she had been allowed to return to her house on Tuesday after her neighborhood had been evacuated Sunday.

"You know that feeling you get when you play video games too long?" she said. "Sore neck, eyes bloodshot and mouth dry, feeling a little like a loser for wasting hours of your life? That's how I feel after being addicted to news and Internet coverage. But I'm just watching to see if I will have to leave my house again.

"The Callaway office is still closed and will remain closed till Thursday. They sent out a note to the company and anticipate reopening the Carlsbad offices on Thursday morning ..."

Monday

On Monday morning at around 5:30, I had to drive my girlfriend to her parents' house in Del Mar. The drive north was eerie. We'd caught just enough news to know there were serious fires in the area. Living in Southern California, you hear about this so often that you almost ignore it.

California fire
Sunlight shines on the homes and vehicles destroyed by the Buckweed Fire, near Bouquet Canyon Road in Canyon Country. This has been the driest season since records began 130 years ago.
But Monday was different.

As we made our way up I-5, it was still dark; and the morning winds were strong enough to fight a Jetta on the open roads. We got off at Via de la Valle and made our way along the famous Jimmy Durante Blvd. that runs between the Del Mar Racetrack and the Del Mar Fairgrounds. Debris and dust gusted across the road, and the smoke was so thick we hardly could see the front of the car. Tree limbs were down. Emergency vehicle lights already could be seen in the haze like stage lights in a smoke machine.

We made our way up the local road along Crest Canyon -- the Del Mar street that would be evacuated that afternoon. Kellie had left her sunroof open and her car was covered in ash. I made my way back home, only to be overwhelmed by newscasts of the scene just miles away. Kellie's family headed north and checked into a hotel in Anaheim until it is safe to return.

Sunday

I first smelled smoke on Sunday night. I was sitting upstairs in my apartment in North Park, just northeast of downtown San Diego. It had been a relaxing weekend with my friends and roommates, a quiet couple of days in the neighborhood. The scent hit us all at the same time, like a sweeping summer barbeque. It had been warm, in the 70s and 80s all weekend around the county, and I remember looking out at the sunset Sunday night and even remarking how strangely hazy it was, as if the sky was on fire.

When I went outside, I knew this was almost the truth. This wasn't the usual marine layer or the standard climate gloom.

Smoke filled San Diego, and you could taste it.

Mary Buckheit is a Page 2 columnist. She can be reached at marybuckheit@hotmail.com.