Surfing the Santa Ana

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On Sunday afternoon, the Santa Ana winds whipped up and the waters of the Pacific Ocean off Del Mar were perfect. "The waves were in a once-in-a-year condition," says Garrett Samuels, 23. "Picture-perfect waves." "It was a hard offshore wind," says Alex Gudim, 20. That was a good sign. "It's the opposite of what it's like on land, which is bad. But on the waters, the waves push up, they stand up like a barrel. It was like that all day Sunday and Monday."

Out in the water, looking straight inland and over beyond Del Mar, you saw the smoke rising from the area around Rancho Santa Fe, suffusing the air all around with ash. Says Gudim, "You couldn't look inland, you couldn't look at the shore because you'd see mounds of ash. You'd be inhaling ash." But that didn't stop the surfer. He still wanted to catch those perfect waves. And, on Monday, with a bandanna tied around his face to filter out the ash, he did.

But back on land later on Monday, it was all seriousness. Gudim and several of his friends had been evacuated from their homes in Rancho Santa Fe. They moved to Del Mar, where they "chilled" at the apartment of Samuels and his roommates Jeff Stumm and Gordon Cunliffe, both 23. But the friends wanted to check up on the homes of their friends and neighbors. So they decided to head back in.

With the police and the National Guard blocking off the main roads, the friends snuck in through "dirt roads and stuff like that," says Gudim. At one point, Samuels and his friends saw firefighters battling a fire that had snaked up and down one hill. They saw a eucalyptus tree a few hundred yards away suddenly burst into flame. "Wow, did you see that?" they said to each other.

Gudim says it was about 1 a.m. when he and another group of pals drove by the very large property of a friend who was away in college. As they stopped to see if the house was OK, they saw their friend's father dash into the house's backyard. The house's yard was being attacked by a fire that had filled the canyon behind the house. "The whole canyon was on fire," says Gudim. And it was now at the edge of their friend's property.

They helped Leo, their friend's father, fight the fire for an hour and a half, using hoses. Then, when things seemed to be damped down, the friends helped Leo drive out two of his three expensive cars to safety in Del Mar. On the way back out, they could see the wind gusts kicking up the embers, which were blowing everywhere. As they were leaving the canyon area, they saw another house go up in flames. "The fire was fully blazing," says Gudim. "Every window of the house was lit up."

At about 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday, another one of Samuels' friends, Chris Gray, 23, got up to check up on the homes of his friends in another part of Rancho Santa Fe, on Las Colinas street. He was planning to videotape what he saw and post it on a new group that had been set up on Facebook. He wandered around Las Colinas and its side streets for about three hours, watching some residents try to save their property, others assessing their destroyed homes. He says he saw 19 homes completely leveled by fire, the cars in front of them mere tire rims. Several of the remains were apparently antique cars from private collections. He also checked on the horses of some friends and discovered two animals in a large corral, "a little freaked out" but safe. He got word to the owners who sent in a trailer to rescue the animals.

But he left without his film evidence because he ran into the police, who ordered him to delete the digital video. Otherwise, they would have to confiscate his camera as potential evidence in an arson investigation. So Gray returned only with the evidence in his head to tell friends what survived and what didn't.