10/24/2007 01:29 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Reflections on a Wildfire Disaster

My wife Karen and I live with our 12-year-old toy poodle in Carlsbad, California. We were among the more than half a million San Diego County residents (about one in six of the total population) who were evacuated to escape the wildfires that raked the region beginning last Monday. We were among the lucky ones who didn't lose their homes and didn't have to camp overnight in emergency shelters. Our only inconvenience was to have to pack our car with personal belongings and sentimental items and drive to a shopping mall parking lot, where we waited for several hours before returning to spend the night.

City and county officials were roundly criticized the last time catastrophic wildfire hit the region, almost four years ago to the day. Poor communications and disorganized emergency responses were blamed for the 15 lives and more than 2,000 homes lost. Authorities erred on the side of caution this time. This week's larger and more widely dispersed fires have taken just five lives so far and destroyed fewer homes, largely because of lessons learned in 2003, such as the installation of a reverse 911 alert system and a far better evacuation plan.


The good news this morning is that new fires have not popped up. Those already burning are coming under control, thanks to diminishing winds, lower temperatures, higher humidity, and the tirelessly heroic efforts of firefighters.

That gives us time to reflect on our personal experience of the disaster.

There was no talk of wildfires when we went to bed Sunday night. When we were awakened by winds gusting to 70 miles per hour whipping by our condo, we feared falling trees, rather than flames. But, in the morning when I looked to the east from our patio and saw the ominous, black cloud emerging over the horizon and smelled the smoke, I knew what they signaled.

I didn't know the nearness of the threat, however, until I turned on the television. For the last three days we've been glued to the 24-hour local coverage by the national network affiliates.

We got our reverse 911 call on Monday afternoon, asking us to evacuate to a shopping mall parking lot about 8 miles away. Karen had done a masterful job of planning for our possible evacuation, so it didn't take long to gather up our important items and pack them into the car. The parking lot was beginning to fill up as we arrived. We looked around at our fellow evacuees.

It's amazing how you make fast friends at such times. But one image struck me as particularly telling about our shared experience. An SUV drove up and a mother and her 10-year-old son climbed out. They were each talking on their cell phones. She was speaking rapid-fire Spanish, and he was chatting in the casual English slang of grade schoolers. That's a pretty accurate picture of our bi-lingual San Diego population, despite the best efforts of the super-patriot, self-appointed guardians of our border, the Minutemen. San Diego has the dubious distinction for having spawned that bigoted group.

It also called to mind the contrast between pictures of evacuees in the New Orleans Convention center after Katrina. Pictures of the thousands camping out at our Qualcomm Stadium show a sea of primarily white faces. I couldn't help wondering if being white and wealthy helped explain part of the difference in how we responded to the two natural disasters.

Although the fire did not threaten our home, all the smoke threatened Karen's asthma. She was wearing a particle mask to help her breathe when I drove her to a local clinic to be tested. Upon our arrival at the clinic's parking lot we were treated to another sight that made us laugh and will remain in our memories of the disaster. While Karen and thousands of others like her were fighting for their next breaths, a young man had parked his car near the door to the clinic. The car door was open to the ash-laden air as he sprawled out in the front seat enjoying a cigarette.

Last night I opened the door to the patio to check the air. It was raining. Ash. It reminded us of the ashfall following the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens when we lived in Washington State. But those were only a mountain's volcanic cinders falling from the sky. This time it was the sad remains of cherished memories of homes and personal belongings that covered our patio floor.