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Tuesday, May 21, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Witch Creek Fire

Driving towards my dad's old farm outside Ramona, I can smell and feel the smoke, and see the small trees by the side of the highway bent in the wind. "This is bad," I say to myself out loud.

Arrived at the farm, about eight miles west of Ramona on Highway 78, I stand on a hill and see the smoke piling up over a ridge to the south. Looking straight at the source of smoke, I can feel the wind blowing hard and directly at me, meaning the wind is blowing the fire straight this way.

Looking up, the sun is a light scarlet orb, seen through the heavy, dark-gray smoke streaming over the farm, portent of destruction.

A couple cops from San Diego pull their cruiser through the front gate, and the driver says matter-of-factly, "It's coming this way." I don't know why they are reassuring, the driver vaguely Irish looking, his partner Asian, in the leather interior of the police car with sooty air filters hanging around their necks. They seem tired and calm, in the midst of crisis.

A half-hour later, a state parks guy pulls up in a pick-up with lights flashing and warns us again. Standing in a gully with trees, dead branches and dry brush all around, I see little reason to stay.

Driving along the stream bed towards Ramona, you can feel the excitement of fire, with every which kind of law enforcement agency, emergency crew and fire fighting truck dashing along, sometimes in opposite directions, sirens wailing.

I hear later that the Santa Ana wind has shifted and, like a Santa Ana should, is blowing straight west towards the coast. Driving along the five freeway, the smoke is the most dense, with bits of blackened grit hitting the skin, in Del Mar which, by my triangulation, is west-southwest of the farm. I develop a hope that that the appropriately named Witch CreekFire will ride past the farm to the south.

But it didn't happen that way.

Returning to the farm last Saturday, after the road was opened, I saw landscape of black and gray in the stream bed where the fire had blow-torched its way through. On the hills to the west and north, all was black, with the brush burned down to the ground.

But the big sycamores, that grow in the stream bed and must be a couple hundred years old, appear to have survived. Their massive trunks are black where the flames licked at them, but the bark just underneath appears fine and the upper branches even retain their leaves.

The main farm house is untouched by the flames. While a pile of firewood nearby is burnt down to nothing and the olive tree next to it is a blackened skeleton of a tree, a third of its original width.

The electrical junction box is fried to a blackened, twisted mess of plastic, an exposed drain pipe burnt so completely that you can't tell it was there, a tool shed - ashes, rubble and twisted metal of what was a jackhammer, lawn mowers, an old gate.

A small house by the front gate has a hole in the roof where the fire was hungry and eating away, until stopped by a crew. My sister heard later that a Caltrans official was up in the Santa Theresa estates, set of million-dollar homes on the other side of the highway, and he saw the little house on fire.

He drove up to Sutherland Lake nearby where firefighting crews had gathered and told them about it, so a truck came down and the crew put the flames out.

So a bit of luck, an alert official and a willing crew of firefighters saved the little place.

My friend Del, a contractor who will do the repair work on the place, comments that the fire's power is "kind of beautiful."

It has cleared the place of every bit of dead brush and stripped the dead branches off the trees, clearing the ground so totally along the rise and fall the bank, and along the curves of the stream bed, that the land seems naked, exposed to the elements, unprotected by the clothing of leaves, dead wood and ground cover.

But it will pass and the land will again be clothed. Folks say that by spring time, there will be wild flowers all over the place.

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