November 1, 2003

By Michael Strickland

A Week Lost in Time

As I drove eastbound on Interstate 8 on my way home today, I kept driving east instead of taking the exit south to my home. With today's rain and cold weather, firefighters were finally gaining some measure of control over the wildfires in the East County, so I decided to make my first foray into the field of destruction to witness the aftermath firsthand. It was truly shocking.

When I passed through Lakeside and El Cajon, I found it heartening to see many intact homes on the very edge of blackened hillsides, testament to the heroic efforts of firefighters to save homes. But the vast open space in San Diego's East County has been ravaged. I drove east for half an hour at freeway speed, surrounded by mostly charred hillsides the entire time, and still did not reach the eastern limits of the fire. The sheer scale of destruction is hard to digest. I can't imagine how long it will take the environment to rebound from so much devastation.

When I returned home, I found the following email from my sister, an account of her family's challenges over the past week in the eye of the firestorm. This is just one of thousands of such stories, as this catastrophe has touched just about everyone in this county one way or another. I'm proud of the courage and resourcefulness of my sister and her family, and am thankful they came through relatively unscathed.

Dear Family and Friends,

One week ago today, our family took a very unexpected journey to a place that we never imagined going. Due to the lack of Cable service, phone service, and for a short while, electricity, our communication with most of you has been very limited. We regained cable service last night so I thought I would attempt to tell you some of what we have experienced. Maybe it will be therapeutic as well.

Saturday~ Security

Saturday~ We had a typical day at home with the exception of preparing to go down the hill to attend Mackenzie and Karlee's homecoming football game. Since Christian High doesn't have school dances, they have a big after party that goes until around 1:00 a.m. Knowing that my normal bedtime is around 9:00 p.m., it was necessary for us to take two vehicles. When the girls and I left around 4:30 we saw in the distance what looked to be a "campfire" size fire. We commented how odd we thought it was and hoped someone was on the way to extinguish it and continued on to the game. As expected, about 8:30 I started to tire and knew that the drive up Wildcat Canyon would just become more difficult if I delayed my departure. On my drive home, I started to see an orange glow from behind the mountains in the east. As I began to increase my speed I remembered "the campfire". When I reached our home I could see flames although they still seemed distant. I thought of Mackenzie's horse "Mac" and made a call to the people whose home he is boarded at. They live on the most eastern street in the estates that backs up to the Cleveland National forest. There was no answer, so I left a message expressing my concern about what I was seeing. After attempting to call Denny, I then turned on the T.V., layed down to watch some news, and of course dozed off. At about midnight I was awoken by a hysterical phone call from the residents of the home where Mac is, requesting assistance with the horse due to them evacuating. I was not prepared to see what was facing me out the window. There was a wall of fire that I am estimating was about 3 miles in length and had completely overtaken the mountain range that surrounds the San Diego Country Estates. Since I was not fully alert yet and realized that Denny and the girls had not returned home, sheer panic overtook my body. My first instinct was to call my Mom. I was to the point of hysteria and as silly as it sounds, I needed someone to tell me what to do, even though I knew what I needed to do. She calmed me enough to get my clothes and shoes on and get me out the door. I was so frightened. Fortunately, as I was going out the door the rest of the family was coming in. Knowing that it would probably be best for me to stay home with Karlee and Kimberlee, Denny and Mackenzie went on their way to deal with the horse. Little did I know that I would not see Mackenzie again until morning. Thankfully Mackenzie inherited Denny's calm nature and proved how mature and composed she really is in the 5 hours that followed. When they arrived at the stables, there was fire literally across the street. They were faced with the situation of having 8 horses and a 4 stall trailer. Mackenzie's horse had already been loaded and they were left with what to do with the other 4 horses. The answer was to ride them out. With Denny following close behind them in the car, Mackenzie along with three other people, rode the horses for 5 miles, through complete chaos and down streets that were bordered with fire to a designated house where they would wait for an empty trailer to take them to a pasture on the outskirts of the Estates. This all took place between midnight and 5 a.m. Little did we know that this was only the beginning of our trip to hell and back. Our security was in limbo.

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:
And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.
My Father, which gave them to me, is greater than all: and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand.

John 10:27-29

Sunday~ Worried

Sunday morning ~ During the time that Denny and Mackenzie were away,Karlee, Kimberlee, and I took care of what needed to be done at home. I think that I gained strength from my girls as I watched them methodically pull cherished family photos from the walls, pack every photo album, family videos, important files, and pack a small bag for every member of our family, and load it into the car. All this was done in 30 - 40 mile an hour winds. The inside of our house and garage was covered in black/grey ash. Our two little white dogs were now grey. Upon Denny's return, we loaded the remainder of our things and regrouped as a family. At this point it was daybreak but there was no sign of the sun. We would not see the sun again for the next three days. For the next eight hours we would witness the fire completely engulf miles of the land surrounding our home and eventually the homes of people that we knew crumble to the ground. I have never felt the kind of sickness that is brought on by the feeling of complete helplessness. It was horrible.

Sunday evening ~ We have been up for 36 hours, no real meals, and once again night time was with us. It was at this time that we lost electricity. We had enough daylight to collect candles to at least get us through the night. We had our first true candlelight dinner of chicken salad with celery and crackers in the living room, by the window, so we could monitor the goings on outside. There was no sign of life, except for the fire. There were no lights in any direction. I forgot to mention that we lost our cable and phone service sometime during the night. We learned the value of batteries and completely charged cell phones. One by one, the kids laid down on the living room floor and fell asleep. Denny and I took turns taking naps. At this point you may be wondering WHY we have not left yet. Well, with our house being situated on a hill, we had a very good vantage point of all that went on around us. We had determined boundaries for ourselves that if the fire reached certain places, that it would be time to leave. That time never really arrived although on a mental level there were times where I questioned if we were doing the best thing by staying. Ironically enough, all the people that we have talked to that evacuated on Saturday night have told us that it was actually more stressful not knowing what had or had not happened to their home. Evacuated families were not allowed back into the estates until Monday night about 6. Our worry was beyond measure.

When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee: and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.
Isaiah 43:2

Monday~ Discouraged

Monday morning ~ As great as cell phones are, the lack of consistency in this situation for us was very frustrating. We learned that most people could not get through to us at all. There was about a 50 percent success rate for calling out from our cell phone. What sustained me through this whole thing was being able to talk to my parents, both sets, and Tuffy. Also, we were finally able to talk to Eric and Keelee which was comforting. I'm sure we will never know how worried everyone was for us but I think it is important to say that everyone was in our thoughts, especially during the quiet, down times when we wondered what was coming next. All in all, it was strengthening experience.

Most of this day was spent sitting and reflecting. I'm not sure we really knew what to do and if we did know, where to start. From all that we knew the fire had moved completely down the hill and had destroyed Scripps ranch and Tierra Santa. Our only insight to experiencing something worse than what we had been through was through the words of my good friend Kris, whose husband is a firefighter that was battling the fire in Scripps ranch. He called and told her that there was a point when there was so much smoke and fire around him that he could not even read his maps nor did he know where to turn to begin doing what he was called there to do. That's scary. She also said that it was the first time that she ever heard him say that he was afraid. Thank God for these people that have chosen this as there profession.

Monday night ~ Our first full night of sleep without fear for our safety.

I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for thou, LORD, only makest me dwell in safety.
Psalms 4:8

Tuesday~ Lonely

Tuesday ~ A day of darkness. This was by far our worst day mentally. Even though it was daytime, it looked to be night time. The smoke was so thick, we could not see the homes across the street from us and going outside was completely out of the question. Kimberlee remembered seeing masks in the garage that Denny used to use when he did yard work and were able to find them. They proved to be effective in the upcoming days. During this day, there were three fire trucks from Berkeley, Oakland, and Albany stationed on our street. The canyon on the back side of our street was completely on fire. Denny was the adventuresome one, along with Mackenzie, and they would venture out to assess what was going on around us. In one of their outings they got to know the firefighters on our street well enough to know that they were hungry. We made sandwiches, leftover chicken salad and peanut butter and jelly. Not the best, but better than nothing. They were grateful. Around noon, Denny made his way down the hill to check in at work and get us some food. At three in the afternoon, if you didn't know better, it was midnight. Completely dark. I came to realize why I love my house so much - it is all windows, floor to ceiling windows with no window coverings. Before this week, I never knew how much I depended on the sunlight. Today, we also had to move Mackenzie's horse again. The place that he was staying was on fire and it was determined that since at his original home there was nothing left to burn, it would be best to move him back there.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Psalm 46:1

Wednesday~ Comfort

Wednesday ~ A day of comforting. Cooking for me is very comforting. Since Denny had shopped the day before, I had plenty to work with in this area. I made more chicken salad, cooked a pork roast, made homemade spaghetti sauce, homemade salad dressing for Kim, green beans with onions and bacon......... I think I'll stop here. Pork fat rules at our house! The air is starting to clear up but I don't think is any where close to being of a healthy nature. We are still staying inside. On Wednesday evening the weather started to change. More moisture and cooler temperatures. What a blessing except that my two little grey dogs were now black because off all the moist ash in the grass. Anything that could stick to them, did! Kris and I had communication and had decided that we would maybe conduct Ballet class on Wed.afternoon. I think she could tell hat I needed to do it and it would also be good for the kids. That afternoon the fireman was killed in Julian. She called me and said she couldn't deal with it - too close to home. We cancelled class. As it turned out, we had no school and no dance for the whole week. Our dear friend/adopted daughter from Julian, Keely, was evacuated from her home in Julian. She, her mother and her Aunt Kate(from Texas!) went to Borrego Springs for the duration of the fire. Her father remained in Julian, a true mountain man. Thankfully, the town was spared. Their home and family business, all located on main street.

But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.
Isaiah 40:31

Thursday~ Restoration

Thursday ~ A day of clean-up. We woke up to a beautiful, clear fall morning. The air was crisp with only a tinge of smoke in the air. If we couldn't see the black hills surrounding us, you never know that anything had happened. Denny went to work and the girls and I started to clean. With the exception of the carpet, all things seem to be back to normal. The pool and the clean up of all the ash has been the biggest challenge. Today was the first time since Saturday night that I have left the house. I went to the grocery store this morning, mainly to just get out. My trip from my house, through San Vicente, to town, was one that was like the land before time. Everything that used to be familiar, was not. All the roadside memorials of teens long gone, were gone. It was almost as though there was no point of reference. If not for the cement road, you would not know where you were. It was Eerie. The only positive part of my venture to town was the connection with our friends, Dave and Patty Smithley and their girls, Jacque, Sammy, and Gabby. Dave is the manager of the Albertsons in Ramona and we all know what they have been going through. Upon my arrival, Patty was working the video counter, Dave was running around and the girls, stocking shelves. Now that's working together as a family. I was so impressed. The store was somewhat empty except for the presence of fire fighters. I thanked each one that I saw. Not one of them was from this area. On my drive home, everything that we had been through started to settle in and the questions started to arise. How? Why? Was everything done that could have? We will probably never know.

Let my mouth be filled with thy praise and with thy honour all the day. But I will hopw continually, and will yet praise thee more and more.
Psalm:8, 14


Friday ~ HALLOWEEN. The most normal of days that we have seen since the fire started. Stephanie, one of our other beloved friend/adopted daughters came over to visit us and stay for awhile. It was good to see her and hug her. She stayed and visited while we continued to clean up. Halloween was sort of a second thought this year. If not for Kimberlee, we probably would have skipped it all together. Kim called one of her friends, Kirsten, and made arrangements to trick or treat with her. Karlee had made plans with another sweet friend Andrea, to walk around with her and her brother for Halloween. Mackenzie just needed some down time with her friend Caitlin, where she spent the night. As it turned out, it was one of the most profitable ( as far as candy goes ) that we have ever had. Kim came home with a pillow case FULL of candy. It was unbelievable. The weight loss due to stress will all be gained back because of CHOCOLATE!!!!!!!!!!! I was doing so well too. Who needs Dr. Phil? The greatest part of HALLOWEEN was that we got our cable service back!

And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work.
II Corinthians 9:8

Saturday~ Peace

Saturday ~ Our return to normalcy. We woke up to rain. What a relief. I made biscuits and gravy, bacon and eggs for breakfast. Yes, this is normal for us. Remember, pork fat? This is our normal Saturday breakfast because Sunday is too busy with church. Sunday is a big lunch day. Denny is getting his haircut today, two weeks delinquent in my opinion, but what do I know? This is normal. All kidding aside, he truly hasn't had time. End of the month, fire, you know the rest.......

For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater;
So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.

Isaiah 55:10,11

Things that we know for sure:

  • You can survive without T.V. ~
  • You really do need a earthquake kit, if not for an earthquake, for a fire~
  • Your priorities become very clear~
  • Chicken salad is our new favorite meal, but only with candles~
  • Our family and friends are the most important things in our lives~

If you have made it this far in the letter without deleting, I apologize for my grammar ( my english whiz kids have not read it yet, so they haven't corrected it .) Although it may have seemed like rambling to you, it was good for me to write this. I feel much better.

I love you all~~~~~~~~


©2003 Michael Strickland ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

What is "The Daily Strick"?

I have long called myself a writer, but too often I don't do what a writer must do daily: write. So you, dear reader, are the beneficiary of my resolution to make a positive change in at least one area of my life. Every single day of this new year (almost), I will write something, anything, and post it here. It is my intention to use this daily exercise to jump-start my too-long-dormant creative energies, and perhaps generate some worthwhile material this year. Hopefully you will find at least an occasional amusement or insight in my daily musings.

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November Columns:

11/28: Family Willow
11/27: Thankful
11/24: Nuclear North Korea
11/21: All Jacko, All the Time
11/20: Mantrimony
11/19: Tutankhamen: Page One
11/18: The Dying Light
11/16: Back to the Grind
11/13: Overpriced
11/12: Land's End
11/11: Veterans' Day
11/10: Cabo Bound
11/9: Supercharged
11/8: Internet Buzz
11/7: Recharged?
11/5: Open Mouth, Insert Foot
11/4: No Wiggle Room
11/1: A Week Lost in Time
Previous months in The Archive

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