San Diego fires

Thanks to our many friends around the world who’ve asked if we’re ok. We are indeed, and, if you’re curious, here’s our story.

The fires began on Sunday, and soon filled the air here in Del Mar on the coast with smoke thick enough to burn your eyes and throat, and leave the sun a dull, eerie orange in what otherwise would have been a clear blue sky. The smoke came in so quickly and thickly that I found myself with many of my neighbors walking around the block to see if a fire had started somewhere nearby. No indeed– the nearest flames at that time were 30 miles to our east.

Sunday night brought ferocious Santa Ana winds, making enough of a racket to wake us up from time to time– clearly an ominous development.

We awoke Monday morning to learn that the fire had raced 20 miles toward us, breaching the barrier of Interstate 15, and hearing that essentially everyone to the east of the second key man-made boundary– Interstate 5, one mile to our east– had been advised to evacuate. The event that came to be called the Witch Creek Fire– one of several hitting the county simultaneously– continued to make a beeline towards our home during the day, giving us plenty of time to calculate what we should bring with us if we had to evacuate.

Extent of Witch Creek Fire (pink area) and area evacuated (orange boundary) as of 7:00 p.m. Monday. Source: Sign on San Diego

My strategy was rather minimalist. I’d been living out of a suitcase the last two weeks as I gave lectures across the country, and would bring exactly the same set of stuff with me. Three sets of clothes, and I’d visit a laundromat if I needed to live out of that for longer than anticipated. Some family photo albums, documents like checkbooks and passports that might be annoying to lose, and the immediate things we’d want like sleeping bags, pillows, and food. And if we lost all else, so be it– we have too much clutter in our lives. Anyway, this was all hypothetical contingency planning.

By late afternoon we realized we just might want one more detail to this hypothetical contingency planning, namely, where the heck we would go. We called a friend in La Jolla who was gracious enough to accept (as a hypothetical contingency, anyway) not just my wife and me, but also my wife’s parents and an elderly neighbor we’d adopted for the occasion as well. We invited the latter to join us for dinner at our Del Mar home Monday evening while we monitored developments, thinking she might get worried being on her own. However, sitting around the TV together proved to be far from soothing, as they provided very little useful details but delighted in replaying the same footage over and over of a particular set of houses going up in flames.

Shortly after 8:00 p.m., we learned that this was all more than hypothetical. Our second, surely impregnable line of defense against the advancing flames– Interstate 5– was deemed insufficient by the local authorities, and we were ordered to evacuate.

I was still cheerful enough about all this, fully expecting to come back to the same house we left. After all, a half-million San Diegans had been instructed to evacuate their homes, and surely no more than a few thousand homes would actually be destroyed– pretty decent odds, really.

Though later last night, in my happy little sleeping bag in our friend’s living room in La Jolla, I thought of taking some pictures, and realized I had no camera, and no lots of other handy stuff as well. I began to wonder if I’d be regretting this whole minimalism thing. Surely it wouldn’t have hurt to throw in the camera, and guitar (there was a much more minimalist time in my life I would have gone nowhere without that), and …

If the wind was demonic on Sunday, Monday night it was angelic, at least from a narrow Del Mar perspective, gently blowing in from the sea and stopping the witch’s westward wanderings in her tracks, about 4 miles east of I-5. The “mandatory” Del Mar evacuation seemed to morph into an advisory on Tuesday, and by Tuesday afternoon the sky here was blue. We were officially told it was ok to go back home.

Which was just fine with minimalist old me. Not to mention our gracious La Jolla host.

UPDATE: Wednesday morning back in my Del Mar home, the sky is clear and there is not a trace of wind. Here is this morning’s updated map:

Approximate areas as of 4:30 a.m. Wednesday Oct 24. Red: active burn area. Orange: fire perimeter. Purple: mandatory evacuation area. Green: re-opened areas. Source: Sign on San Diego

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28 thoughts on “San Diego fires

  1. ajw

    Thank you for the update, Professor. A friend who works for a buy-side firm in the area had a similar story, and I am very grateful to hear that you are both safe and well.

  2. DickF

    Living through the Florida hurricanes a few years ago I understand a little of what you are going through. My prayers are with you and the others displaced. Hopefully the worst is over.
    Thank you for sharing. It makes the news reporting all too personal.

  3. pgl

    Glad you are OK. Your map really puts perspective to the San Diego County fires. So far here in LA, we’ve been lucky. Here’s praying for a break in the weather and God speed to our brave fire fighters. Hope you get to go home soon.

  4. Scott Irwin

    Very glad to hear you and your family are OK. Hope you are now safely back in your home. It is always hard to believe how fast things can change. One day giving a lecture, a few days later leaving a home in the face of a raging wildfire.
    I appreciated your minimalist approach to leaving. Much to be lauded there. It would be interesting to know what others would bring with them in a similar situation. I think my family would not travel nearly so lightly!
    Regards and best wishes.

  5. General Specific

    I live in Carmel Valley. Similar story. Took a minimalist approach–family, dog, car, few changes of clothes, medication, financial papers, old photographs, bankbox key. I suppose one could take more stuff, but it’s just stuff.
    Hung out for a couple days in hotel off Mission Bay.

  6. Tedk

    Glad to know you and family are safe. Hopefully more and more people will be able to retunr to their homes as the winds subside.

  7. LRH

    Another great story, Jim. And excellent news to hear that you’re back home and safe. However, minimalist or not, always take the guitar.
    Thank you so much for the update.

  8. kio

    Glad you are safe and optimistic. I can not imagine the full scale of disaster. MILLION evacuees. That’s big and frightening.
    Recall USCD with great feeling. Wonderfull place in La Jolla. Hope it’s safe now.

  9. david

    Prof Hamilton,
    I am happy to hear that you are Ok. I hope everyone in department is also Ok.
    David V

  10. spencer

    I have a nephew in Escondido who is still evacuated,
    but as far as he knows his house is still OK.
    Completely off-base and out of line —
    But I thought the San Diego housing market had cooled off.
    But how will removing 1-2 thousand homes from the housing stock impact the real estate market?

  11. General Specific

    Yes, just when the local real estate and construction market was suffering, demand has been stimulate by external $$$ (via insurance money) into the rental market and the construction market.

  12. Stuart Staniford

    Very glad all is well with you and yours.
    Has there been any discussion of the insurance industry perspective on all this? I wonder if the combination of a gradually warming and drying climate in the southwest and more development there will cause them to begin looking at San Diego as too big a risk, much like they are now pulling out of the East Coast markets threatened by hurricanes?

  13. Mark E Hoffer

    Glad to hear that you stayed safe and sane. I think the fact that you kept an eye peeled for your neighbor, well recommends you. Individuals, such as yourself, benefit us all.
    Hope the rest of yours are well, as well.

  14. Joseph Somsel

    I remember my first fire in San Luis Obispo back in the early 90’s. The sight of flames on the ridge behind Cal Poly at night was EXTREMELY sobering. We too had to make some plans for quick evacuation.
    I’ve been through hurricanes and earthquakes but fires are the worst. But that is just part of living in California, an eternal cycle of grown, die, and burn.
    Glad to hear you made it through.

  15. Hal

    I’m glad you’re OK too – my wife used to live in that area and it’s shocking to imagine those beach communities being threatened by fire.
    Since this is one of the few blogs I read where the fire has come up as relevant, I want to make one comment about what I see as misleading reporting: that southern california is in the grip of a terrible multi-year drought and that has made these fires so much worse.
    In fact, although this year has been the driest or nearly the driest on record in most communities, last year was average and the year before (2004-2005) was the WETTEST or 2nd-wettest year on record in SoCal. The year before that was somewhat dry, before that average, before that quite dry, then a little above average, and so on.
    The point is that SoCal is not in the midst of a terrible multi-year drought. Rather the fires are due to a single very dry year coming two seasons after a very wet year. The wet year promoted heavy vegetation growth and the dry year has turned it into fuel. That’s the real story behind the fires and the drought, but it’s not what I’m seeing reported.
    See for LA rainfall records.

  16. General Specific

    Re: Rainfall
    What I’m seeing from the data at the San Diego county water authority: increasing extremes since 1964. Increasingly wet years followed by increasingly dry years.
    I would not read too much from it, but the chart I just produced does show an eye-trend towards more extremes, with a very wet year stimulating more growth followed by a very dry (burn) years.
    1998 was an extremely wet year followed by dry years (and the Ceder fire). Then 2005 brought even more rain, followed by historical dry years and the recent fires.
    Looks like we’re seeing greater extremes.

  17. Brian

    I’m glad to see that you are OK, but are you allowed to be an economist AND a minimalist? Shouldn’t you be trying to maximize your consumption?

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