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E-mail from an inferno: Taking back our house

  • Story Highlights
  • Physician John Gallen finds wildfires left his home standing but empty
  • Soot marks indicate flames had come to every door
  • Gallen has e-mailed CNN about his family's escape and the horror of the fire
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By Jonathan Gallen
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Editor's Note: In his third installment, physician John Gallen e-mails CNN from near San Diego, California about how he got home and what he found there.

Firefighters spray buildings in Poway on Tuesday in an attempt to stop them from burning.

POWAY, California (CNN) -- We made it back into the house last night. There were National Guardsmen at key checkpoints in Poway that were set up to protect neighborhoods from looters. These young men were carrying fully loaded M16s. For a quick second I thought I was in a war zone. That was incredibly intimidating for me.

As I approached the checkpoint, I rolled down my window and I was asked to show proof of ownership if I was to pass. I never had such a hard time finding my wallet, which was hiding in my back pocket. My hope was that I still looked like my picture so they would let us go.

The guardsman allowed us through, but with a military tone to his voice when he adamantly delivered this warning: the area was still "hot" and I should remain vigilant at all times. I assumed that meant that there were still fires burning and our safety could not be guaranteed.

Up the hill we went. We had no idea what we would see when we turned onto our street.

As we drove up our driveway, we could see our house was still standing.

The moon was full but not really white. (This particular color does not come at the local paint store.) The moon's shadow was quite muted making it hard to see, making it even harder to walk around the house without bumping into bushes or trees.

From what I could see or feel, the outside of the home only had wind damage with debris from the queen palms and branches strewn everywhere. Those palm trees have 8-inch spikes on their fronds. Stepping on them or picking them up could result in a major penetrating injury.

I circled the house to make sure that no one had broken into a back window or door. I was relieved that it was secure.

We opened the garage door and drove in. Burnt tires. It looked like an old campfire.

My eyes were watering and I had to cough several times as I opened the door to the house. I knew it was entirely unhealthy to be breathing this air. But we made the decision to take back our home, and there was no stopping us now.

As we went inside, we were taken aback by the emptiness that was left behind.

We had 38 8-by-10 framed pictures of the three kids as they grew from babies to adolescents. The walls were now barren other than the hooks and nails protruding from the walls that once supported those memories.

I noticed a dark brown soot stain at each entry door, especially between the two front doors, as if the fire had been probing our home for a way to get in.

It was almost as if it were a living organism looking for another victim to satiate its evil appetite.

I guess our home didn't taste good. Or perhaps my grandmother was there in spirit to defend what was rightfully ours. After all, her Persian rug was her pride and joy and not even this monster was going to devour her prized possession. My grandmother's rug survived, but it was damaged.

The whole house had a layer of fine dust that had settled on all the surfaces. The mirrors, the glass and the counters were unclean.

I walked into the closet where we had left our clothing, all of it still hanging there. But it smelled like someone had been smoking. Nonsmokers cannot stand such a smell. We are nonsmokers.

Where's the dog? We had been wandering around but in the excitement of taking stock of our home, we forgot to keep track of the puppy we'd evacuated with. "I thought you had him."

"No, I thought you had him." So out into the blackness and quiet I ran yelling for Fenway.

Then the phone rang. Can you believe it? A neighbor down the block found him on their property as they were driving up to their home. Boy, were we glad to have him back.

He has yet to settle. He continues to pace. That phone call made the whole thing real. There were others out there, and we were not alone.

We settled in to watch the Red Sox, still aware that the fires are burning to the west of us.

It is almost bordering on guilt that we are OK. Maybe that will be enough to continue to mobilize and energize this city in its incredible spirit of giving and sharing.

I have what is important to me right now. I have four walls, three kids, my wife and my puppy. I can only hope that all those displaced will find the same sanctuary in the very near future. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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