88: We’re Saved!

88: We’re Saved!

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings

We’re Saved!

We cannot live only for ourselves.
A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men.

~Herman Melville

Our neighborhood, Rancho Bernardo, was ablaze. We barely escaped, and fled to Qualcomm Stadium. Greedily we gulped fresh air. Water and hot dogs were proffered—balm to our stress.

We set up the portacrib in a handicap area and settled our six-month-old twin grandbabies, Joey and Lizzie, ash smudging their cheeks. TVs spewed a steady narration of the fire’s advance. It snuck up the freeway, gobbled the hillside, then five homes along the eastern ridge. Historic Battle Mountain was stripped and blackened, but the white steel cross landmark persevered.

It hopped the freeway, and west of I-15 was burning too. Ten homes disappeared as firemen chased the flames with axes and hoses. Valiant firefighters on foot, infantrymen, could not keep up. Hurricane force winds rendered air cover impossible. Fire hopscotched up Aguamiel Road and took out twenty homes, as we gaped from our concrete bunker.

All around us, frantically, evacuees shared scraps of information, huddling over my husband Jim’s BlackBerry, seeking which streets were burning. People were heroic even in their devastation—sharing food, drinks, news, comfort. Familiar faces floated by in the crowd and on the screen. Every once in a while a sob went up, “That’s my house.”

Our neighbors, the Kains, who followed us there, settled on the floor above, then encouraged us to join them—better for the babies. Jim went ahead to select a spot before we relinquished our seats, then summoned us by phone. Dragging the crib full of baby gear, we passed a growing tent city of sleeping bags, blankets, and pillows marking territory.

I pushed the stroller while the twins’ mom, Linda, bumped the crib up the spiral ramp to the Club level. There were glass enclosed enclaves for seniors evacuated from retirement homes. We encamped between them on the concourse, near two TVs and the restroom. We strung chairs together as a fence around the baby bed, and hunkered down for the duration.

Volunteers poured in from churches and organizations, offering water, food, supplies, even a highchair and baby seat. We accepted only what we needed, leaving the rest for evacuees who escaped with just their lives.

As dark came on, we were exhausted. San Diego State University students arrived with blankets. On the concourse, we were outdoors—in October. A wind shield rose about three-quarters up the wall, but cold night air streamed in over the top. Constructed of concrete and steel, the temperatures inside and out were indistinguishable, but we felt safe from fire. We burrowed under blankets, and covered the mesh portacrib with comforters.

Steel-framed cots were delivered by the Army—they even set them up. It’s amazing how territorial we became. Using chairs at the foot of each cot, we formed a perimeter, paranoid about the babies amidst 10,000 strangers. Jim sat up all night and guarded them while we slept, fitfully. I relieved him at dawn, and we all shared their care throughout the day.

Joey and Lizzie, blissful in their ignorance, cheered passersby. Everyone stopped for smiles and giggles, and the babies produced an endless stream of joy.

Nearby, in the club room, more than one hundred seniors received patient attention. Some were disoriented and fretful. Often, we would assist when they said, “I don’t know how to get back” from the restrooms. Reporters tried to take their photos looking pathetic, but we sent them packing.

Increasingly, media arrived—local, then major networks, international reporters, even cubbies earning journalism degrees. The Border Patrol posted lists of homes burned. Insurance companies offered guidance. Farmers Insurance cooked pancakes, sausage, hot dogs. Starbucks served coffee. Local politicians manned booths. Telecommunications companies provided cell phone recharging, Internet access. Day three, showers were set up.

Entertainers came from the beginning: guitarists, singers, clowns, balloonists, face painters. Churches provided for children, with toys, bubbles, crayons, paints. Governor Schwarzenegger arrived by helicopter. I expected him to rappel down the side of the stadium.

We expanded from bewildered evacuees to include freeloaders and scamsters. I saw a woman selling the donations she’d gotten inside to a mother with children camped outside. Some people heard it was like Woodstock, so they came. We knew it was time to leave.

Jim left on the third morning to see if we could get into Westwood, the hardest hit area. National Guardsmen and police blocked every entrance. They were still checking for gas leaks and hot spots.

Exhausted, we hung back, having no safer harbor to go to. By noon, the mayor, senators, council members, the county supervisor, everyone, broadcast what the city was doing, but no word for us. I blocked the departure of the county supervisor and put the question to him. He sincerely advised that we stay put until we were specifically instructed to go back.

At two o’clock, I listened to the mayor and our councilman broadcasting from Westwood. There were conflicting reports about Westwood being open. I asked the reporter why she was telling the public something different than our councilman said minutes earlier. She grew as frustrated as we were at the conflicting information. We had to get out of there.

I called Linda from the growing circus below, told her to get the babies fed and changed—we were leaving. Upstairs, a strange woman held Joey. She’d heard about the evacuees and decided to sneak up to help. Paranoid, I took Joey from her and changed him, then laid him down on a comforter while I made them bottles. She picked him up, and sat beside Linda feeding Lizzie. I hastily assembled all of our stuff, leaving everything the volunteers had provided. Maybe I was just worn out, but I felt like this woman could run away with Joey into the crowd of now 20,000 people. Too much Law & Order, I guess.

The woman begged to help us carry out the babies, but I refused staunchly, nabbing one of the passing church volunteers, a big strapping fellow, to help us with the gear. Linda wheeled the babies in their stroller. I carried some belongings. We bee-lined to our cars, covered in ash.

Linda’s mother had returned to her Escondido home, so Linda would take them there. Jim, worn out from his all-night vigils, went to the home of friends in Poway to shower, change, and rest. I had to see our neighborhood.

I was never so glad to leave anywhere, or so grateful. I can’t thank Qualcomm Stadium or the City of San Diego enough. Likewise, the volunteers and businesses that donated an ocean of supplies. Even some of the Chargers came to offer comfort, like Clinton Hart.

At Westwood, I met blockades. Parking along the road I could peer over the block wall and see my house. I climbed on a transformer box, and there it was: The house we had fled in the dead of night, where I’d lived for twenty-five years, and raised my children.

That predawn escape seemed so long ago. Whenever we were allowed back in, I would go to the Crisis Center and volunteer to help those who were not so lucky. In all, 365 homes burned in Rancho Bernardo, about 1,500 in San Diego County. We will never stop counting this blessing.

~Nancy Canfield

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