Wind and Fire: One Family's Escape

  • Share
  • Read Later
Lenny Ignelzi / AP

A long line of buses and police are staged for the possible evacuation of a large assisted living facility in the community of Rancho Bernardo, San Diego, Calif., Monday, Oct 22. 2007.

Jay Blankenbeckler, 36, had just flown back to San Diego from Chicago. He saw a big cloud of smoke but didn't think too much of it. He felt it was going to be a perfect Indian summer night in Southern California, topped off by time in the Jacuzzi looking at the moon. The fires were pretty far away, and by midnight, he says, things were "relatively calm; the newscasters weren't freaking out." The only place where things seemed to be "sketchy" was Ramona, which was 12 to 15 miles away from his home in Rancho Bernardo.

Then at around 4:30 a.m., he was shaken awake by the wind. "I'd never seen wind like that before. My fully mature king palm trees were at almost 90-degree angles." Those trees are twice as tall as his two-story house. "Literally, I thought, 'That's past their breaking point.' It was so severe and so crazy. They were doing this swirling thing. My palm trees, 35 to 45 feet of palm tree, almost looked like a swizzle stick in a drink, moving around in a big circle."

All of the sudden, he saw "bluish white lights going off in the distance, a few explosions." They weren't red or orange like fire, and then he realized it was something electrical. So he went inside and turned on the TV, fully expecting to hear reports of the wind, not the fire. Instead, he saw the local newscaster on TV with huge flames behind him. The banner on the bottom of the screen announced the newscaster's location as less than a half-mile from Blankenbeckler's home. "I know the area real well, and I knew exactly where the fire was now. It had already burned through an entire neighborhood. That's when I thought, 'This is real.'" He woke up his wife, and they considered whether to start packing.

Blankenbeckler called his father, who lived nearby. He came over and they watched more news. The newscaster was wondering what would happen if the fire jumped the freeway and started moving west. Sure enough, the cameraman panned, and the fire had made the leap. Blankenbeckler thought, "Man, this is horrible." Soon, their neighborhood was listed as one of the mandatory evacuation zones, and they began packing in earnest. "When they said go, we left."

As he and his wife and their two-year-old daughter drove away, he realized the scope of the disaster. He pulled into the first gas station to fill up, and "all of a sudden there's 75 people lined up trying to get gas." Across the street in a large shopping center, the police and firefighters had set up a command center with 30 to 40 school buses. As he drove away toward his in-laws, who live in Rancho San Diego in southern San Diego County, "I looked back in my rearview mirror and saw the meanest, blackest smoke cloud."

The smoke "looked like something out of a movie, a big, ferocious blackness. The sun was up, and everything should have been lit up. It wasn't quite like the middle of the night, but it was certainly dark out." On the way south, he could hear the fear in the radio broadcasters' voices. "You can usually pick up when people are panicky. The radio guys were stumbling over words, and couldn't even say a couple sentences. Everybody was kind of off. I remember getting gas, and people were looking around at each other, nodding their heads. People were kind of freaked out."

Blankenbeckler, who works as a biotech manager at Invitrogen in nearby Carlsbad, said the landscape formed a natural wind tunnel, with 50- to 70-mile-per-hour winds pushing 10- to 20-foot walls of flame. "There was nothing to stop it except for houses." Fires often happen in this part of the county, but usually firefighters are able to "knock them down" in the open spaces before they reach the homes. This time, however, the fire went straight into suburban neighborhoods. "I've seen fires for 30 years, and once they get to the Poway suburban area, the fuels are gone. Maybe we lose 10 to 20 houses, ones that were built into the mountains and the woods, but once you hit the suburbs, it peters out. But this time, all because of the wind, it was different.... It was like lava — fire came roaring through and took everything out."

He went to his in-laws' house because he thought it was a safe area. "We come down here and all of the sudden, another fire flares up for about six hours. We started packing our in-laws' stuff." Then the wind shifted and took the fire in another direction. His father returned to Blankenbeckler's neighborhood on Monday night to make sure the house was still there. He said there were big chunks of burned trees all around and that almost all of Blankenbeckler's palm trees had lost their fronds. But the house was still standing. "We're through the worst of it," says Blankenbeckler. "Theoretically, it could still come our way, but the wind has died down significantly."