From Blackened Hills, to Flattened Homes, to Flames Still Burning: When Will It End?

Thursday, October 25th 2007, 6:00 pm
By: News On 6

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- The camera clicks again and again, until Steve Clamage pauses to take his eye from the viewfinder and gaze at a vista that was never meant to resemble purgatory. Then, he clicks some more.

``Wow,'' he utters, unable to muster much else. ``This is unbelievable. Unbelievable.''

He stands in a stranger's backyard on Aguamiel Road in Rancho Bernardo, next to a house that looks more like a Roman ruin than a Spanish-style ranch home. The view, once, was spectacular: A sloping hill fell beneath the back patio, stretching east toward rolling mountains and the Cleveland National Forest.

Now, it's just more wreckage _ the sad, scorched residue of five days of interminable annihilation.

The sloping hill is blackened earth, the mountains beyond devoid of the palm trees and shrubs that once made them beautiful, wild and lush. One street below, homes lie in piles of ash. Over the mountains and farther east, columns of white smoke billow into the sky from a fire that roars on, threatening to do elsewhere what has already happened here.

Wander through stricken Southern California, and you'll find that the destruction is, simply, all around: some if it final, tragically absolute. Some still in progress, the aftermath unknowable.

The devastation transfixes because it is so colossal. Some have likened it to Iraq. Indeed, in this San Diego community and others across the region, home after home _ and, at times, entire streets _ are flattened as if they were bombed.

Aguamiel Road is one of those places. On one side of one block, a row of nine homes has ceased to exist. On the other side, five houses are gone, side by side.

At 17938 Aguamiel, blackened timber sits in twisted heaps sprinkled with insulation and ash. About the only thing recognizable is the lid to a Weber grill and the iron patio set _ a loveseat and two rocking chairs _ that remain virtually unscathed.

John Stewart, a Red Cross volunteer, steps over debris and sticks a disaster relief flier with phone numbers for caseworkers and counselors in the only place he can: Between the splinters of a charred piece of wood that might once have been a balcony.

He stops for a moment before moving on, looking next door at 17934 _ completely untouched _ the yellow and red roses still blooming in the front yard. He scans across the street to 17941, where all that remains is a red brick chimney _ a sort of grave marker for each of the demolished homes on Aguamiel.

How did the fire ``pick and choose,'' Stewart wonders. ``Who was the lucky one?''

A San Diego city councilman and his staff walked this street, counting at least 29 homes destroyed. They compiled a list of house numbers and posted it on a Web site, along with all the other addresses for Rancho Bernardo residences lost to the flames. The list was 11 pages long.

Sixteen-year-old Michaela Peters spotted her house number there: 17955 Aguamiel.

Still, somehow, she had hoped.

``Maybe this is all just a dream,'' the high school junior thought as her family made their way to their street late Wednesday afternoon. When the car pulled up, the tears finally came.

By nightfall, she and a 12-year-old neighbor, who also lost his home, were hanging out on the basketball court of a recreation center-turned-refuge. Their moms were inside, figuring out what to do next.

A neighborhood pastor offered comfort. ``We'll be praying,'' he said. ``God bless.''

Michaela offered him something, too _ sincere congratulations that his home had survived.

``It's great,'' she said. ``That's great.''

Others struggled, the outcome still in doubt. Even as ash rained on his orange trees and blanketed his white 1961 Falcon, Javier Ramirez refused to leave his home in the Pauma Valley as a newer blaze _ the Poomacha Fire _ blew up in the mountains east of Rancho Bernardo.

He took to his roof instead, snaking a garden hose over the shingles until water dripped onto the ground.

In the distance, a line of flames circled a mountain ridge, cloaking orchards in thick smoke.

It was a surreal scene that speaks to the random and unpredictable nature of the fires' fury. Mile after mile of thriving orchards and rural farmland, for now, stand preserved, while homes in suburban neighborhoods dotted with fast-food restaurants are gone.

One minute winds swirl; the next, they are perfectly still. At a casino, only miles from where fires burn, patrons sit at blackjack tables and slot machines even as the parking lot serves as a staging ground for row upon row of fire trucks. A sign outside flashes a thank-you to firefighters _ and then advertises spa treatments.

Over a disaster zone like Rancho Bernardo, the sun shines in a newly clear sky while the mountain beyond sits in smoke.

About 10 miles east of Ramirez's house, a firefighter stands on the side of a mountain highway, watching as towering flames chew through scrub. A half-dozen farm houses are sprinkled below. They would be sitting ducks _ except that the winds are blowing away. At least for now.

So this blaze will be allowed to burn uncontested _ at least for now.

There are just too few resources to fight all these fires.

``I came up here this morning and ran into 9172 Charlie,'' a firefighting company, recalls Bob Rodello of the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. ``They'd been out here since 2 in the morning. They go, `You got any water?' No. `You got any food?' No. It's ugly.

``I've got four dozers and two fire crews,'' he says. It's not enough. ``I asked for three strike-team engines today. They laughed.''

A few miles south, a four-man crew stops on the side of a road, where tree stumps are smoldering, one still shooting off flames. They aim a hose, spraying water for a few seconds before packing up and moving on.

Fire Capt. Wally Burquez started his week at another blaze in Malibu before arriving here _ sometime Tuesday, he thinks. ``We haven't really stopped.''

His stubble is thick, his eyes shadowed. He asks: What day is it today?

Evacuees spend their days shuttling between shelters and roadblocks that keep them from their beloved homes. They hear that police escorts will accompany them back, then arrive at the crack of dawn only to learn that's not true.

One morning this week, the crowd grew from a handful to several dozen at a police roadblock outside Rancho Bernardo.

``Are they letting anybody back in?'' a man asked no one in particular.

``Has there been any problem with looters?'' another asked an officer. He is told police are on patrol.

One woman paced, talking into a cell phone: ``There's no gas. There's no electricity. There's still hotspots. So ...''

With the rumor mill swirling, the displaced swap stories and cling to hope that if their address isn't on some dreaded list of houses turned to ashes.

Arthur Nishi's neighbor didn't see her house number on any list. Then she found her way home, and discovered it gone nonetheless. ``She went from heaven to hell,'' he said.

Much like this place during this horrible week.

Moments of merciful relief, when they come, are quickly followed by more fear, as new fires erupt and spread and more families are forced to flee.

At San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, where thousands remain camped out on cots and in tents, Maria Damian arrived, clutching her tiny niece in her arms. Her brother and his wife were by her side, along with three more of their children and Maria's own son.

``Comida,'' she muttered. They needed food.

``Ropa.'' Some clothes for the children. Diapers, she said. Some medicine.

For several minutes, Maria and her frazzled family stood at the entrance to Gate A, dazed and overwhelmed, unsure what to do next. Where to go? Whom to speak with? Just how, exactly, would they get through this?

Questions hundreds of thousands of Californians are trying to answer _ if only they, too, can figure out where to begin.