Emergency Evacuation at Dawn

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The phone rang at 4:15 a.m. It was the reverse 911 phone call [the pre-recorded call warning homeowners that they are in a mandatory evacuation zone]. I touched the window. It was very warm. I heard sirens. I said, "We've got to get out of here, quick."

I got my mother, who is 93. I got her dressed and downstairs. We ran to the garage. I got two suitcases. My wife and I filled them with clothes, pictures, personal possessions. I filled a third case with insurance papers and meds. I looked out the window and didn't see any flames. I put my mother in the car. Then I got two more suitcases.

I ran back outside and saw flames coming down the hillside. The wind was blowing at least 50 miles an hour. We got the dog in the car. I went back into the house a third time. I heard popping and saw palm trees in the street bursting into flames. Embers were falling and setting bushes and trees on fire. I said to myself, I can't [stay here]. A tree might fall on the car and trap everybody. So I slammed the door and ran to the car. I got hit by a hailstorm of flaming embers. They burned my arms, my neck and my legs. By then there were fires everywhere on the street. I couldn't see five feet in front of me. My wife [got into her car] and yelled that she'd meet me at work.

As I drove down my street, four fire engines were heading to fight the blaze. I saw firefighters in their full gear. They were running from house to house pounding on doors. To the left of them, houses were on fire; to the right, the hillside was on fire. They stood their ground.

As I drove away I saw all these houses ablaze. I was just shocked. All this happened within 15 minutes of me waking up. Half the cul-de-sac was now on fire. That's how quick it happened. When I went to bed the night before, at 12:30 a.m., the fire was 35 miles away. Nobody could have predicted that the winds would change. If I hadn't gotten that 911 call, I might have perished. I'd never have gotten out of the neighborhood.

When I woke up the next day [in a hotel in Mission Valley] I was overwhelmed by what had happened. When I pulled out of my driveway [the day before], I had said goodbye to all my memories, thinking the whole neighborhood would be leveled. I had prepared myself emotionally, knowing that I would lose every piece of my broadcasting history, every memento of my family. I didn't have time to fully pack the car.

At 4:30 the next morning, I drove up the hill toward my house, and I was shocked by the devastation. The whole neighborhood was charred. It looked like a wind tunnel of fire had gone through. By daylight I saw that only five houses on my side of the street were O.K. I called three of my neighbors at 6 a.m. and told them their houses were OK. They choked up. The house directly across from ours had completely burned to the ground.

When I saw our house, I started to weep. What saved it was a roof we put on two years ago. But my wife's best friend lost everything, their entire house.

I am so sad. I've lived here 22 years. We've been through two major fires in four years and two major earthquakes. I'm mostly numb.