Residents await word on fates of loved ones
Alpine Sun (2007-10-25) Miriam Raftery
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By Miriam Raftery
The Alpine Sun
“It’s like Armageddon,” Potrero resident Jill Michaels said of the devastating Harris and Witch fires that have engulfed over 300,000 acres, forced evacuation of more than 300,000 people and burned at least 1,000 homes as of press deadline on Tuesday. Termed by fire officials as the worst wildfire in California history, surpassing even the deadly Cedar Fire of 2003, the blazes burned a deadly swath fueled by gale-force Santa Ana winds.
Michaels watched her home burn to the ground, after finding all exit routes blocked and returning to Potrero Sunday, unable to evacuate the area initially. On Sunday morning, she mistook the sound of helicopters overhead for Border Patrol aircraft, a frequent noise in this small town close to the Mexican border. But after spotting flames outside a short time later, she recalled, “I knocked on everybody’s door and said, ‘Get dressed.’”
Family members tossed belongings into bed sheets, tied knots and loaded up vehicles.
“I put together a little box with my jewelry, a couple of pictures… I wanted to save everything,” she recalled. “I forgot to get the sole picture of my Dad, who has passed away. Everything in my house was collectible, family heirlooms, vintage items.” They rescued two kittens, but two others wriggled free and have not been found.
Before leaving, she took photos to show her renters’ insurance company.
“I was at my computer ready to upload pictures when I saw out my window an orange smoke. I went outside and saw flames hitting the property line 40 feet from my house. We had four minutes to get stuff off the couch and onto the car; my husband was getting singed.”
Family members caravanned toward Tecate, but had to turn around after finding highway 188 blocked. They lost sight of Michaels’ mother, who was in a separate car. Heading toward Campo, the encountered another roadblock while a helicopter landed. “We ended up going back home,” Michaels said. “When we got there, our house was fully engulfed. I took a picture of our house burning.”
Ultimately Michaels reunited with her mother at the Campo Diner, where restaurant owners provided free meals to fire victims. The family is still awaiting word on whether Michaels’ mother and two tenants lost their homes as well. They are now staying with friends in North Park.
Apart from losing her home, Michaels expressed concern over how to vote in the upcoming vote-by-mail election to recall Potrero planners.
“We got something in the mail to sign up as permanent absentee voters, but we weren’t able to fill that out before it burned,” she said.
Potrero Planning Group member Jan Hedlun evacuated her home Sunday morning but remained with friends in the Potrero area.
“I was asleep when someone knocked on my door,” she said in a phone interview Sunday evening. According to Hedlun, several homes burned on Sunday, along with the town’s Post Office.
Gordon Hammers, chair of the Potrero Planning Group, went to stay with family and friends in Tecate, Mexico. “When I went to go back, the border was closed,” he said. “I understand the trailer park got burned out, and the cell towers are down.”
Hammers’ son, Tim, returned to Potrero Sunday night and remained until noon Monday. “There was a lot of smoke and hot spots on the hill above my house. They flared up and started burning down the canyon towards me,” he said. “I saw a couple of houses go up in flames.” The historic general store, built in the 1800s, was still standing at noon Monday, he reported.
Gillespie Field opens as animal shelter site
Some Potrero residents were less fortunate. Tom Varshock died while attempting to save his home. His son is hospitalized with burns over 50 percent of his body, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune and area residents.
“This isn’t a fire you fight. This is a run-from,” said a motorcycle club member watching a mountaintop explode into flames at the Barrett Junction Café, just over the hill from Potrero Sunday at 1 p.m. Moments later, a loudspeaker warned people to evacuate Barrett Junction immediately.
Officer A. Hernandez, a Border Patrol agent outside the Barrett Junction Café, said he doubted Potrero could be saved. “It’s likely we will lose the town,” he said somberly. “I was just there and everything is in flames.”
By late afternoon, Hedlun said in a phone interview that the school and library were still standing. Carl Meyer, another Potrero resident, remained in the area helping douse hot spots around his mother’s home, where a carport burned.
At Steele Canyon High School, evacuees waited in a hot parking lot for hours with no word on the fate of their communities. The Red Cross offered beverages, but Sheriff’s officials who visited the site offered no updates on conditions, nor was there any television or radio to keep evacuees informed.
Antonio Martinez, who evacuated with his extended family including children and a mother-in-law in need of dialysis, summoned help to evacuate people from a trailer park at Barrett Junction.
“Nobody even knew that park was there,” he said. “I talked to the Border Patrol and said ‘I need your help to get everybody out.’” Martinez helped carry out a 90-year-old woman, who sat dazed in the parking lot hours after reaching the emergency evacuation center, where the Red Cross hastily set up small animal shelters and pledged to provide meals.
Meanwhile, evacuees waited in the hot sun, watching and worrying as smoke billowed on the horizon.
“Where are the authorities?” Martinez asked, his voice catching.
Authorities are still investigating the cause of the fires, which remain unknown. At least a dozen other fires erupted over the weekend throughout Southern California, however, fueled by hot, dry conditions and high winds.
Some residents in the path of the Witch Creek fire, which started in Ramona on Sunday, received early warnings and had time to plan orderly evacuations.
Mark and Jackie Hanson received no warnings before losing their Lakeside home in the 2003 Cedar fire, when they barely escaped with their lives in the middle of the night, but several of their neighbors perished. During that fire, the Hansons called and warned neighbors to flee, until phone lines burned.
This time, an early warning that evacuation might be eminent provided ample time for the Hansons to enlist help from family members to take several carloads of belongings to their son’s home in Alpine on Sunday.
“We rolled up carpets and took paintings off the walls,” said Jackie Hanson. “Fire engines came around about sundown and said you need to get out now. Then we got reverse 911 calls, two of them.”
On Monday afternoon, authorities allowed Mark Hanson into the area, where he found the family’s home still standing. But by Tuesday morning, flames engulfed Wildcat Canyon, placing the beleaguered family in danger of losing their home — again.
“It feels like déjà vu,” Jackie Hanson observed, summing up the sentiments of many past fire survivors here.
In Alpine, where some areas were evacuated on Monday, Alanna Light and her family worried over where to take their horses if ordered to leave. She concluded, “We’re at the mercy of the winds.”
EL CAJON — The county's Gillespie Field airport in El Cajon has opened a 41-acre area as a staging site for animals whose homes have been evacuated and who need to be relocated.
The site is at the intersection of Weld Boulevard and Cuyamaca Street. It includes grazing land, and water, feed, and grain will be provided.
The site is primarily for horses, but a small penned area will be available for other animals. The shelter was opened late Tuesday morning.
The contact for the shelter is El Cajon Police department public information officer Monica Zech. The phone number for the El Cajon Police Department is 579-3311 and the phone number for Gillespie Field is 956-4800.
While there is lots of space available at the field, the shelter is in need of food for the animals, additional temporary fencing to build pens, and items for the people that are caring for all the animals.