Skip to main content
  • E-mail
  • Save
  • Print

E-mail from an inferno: How we escaped the fire

  • Story Highlights
  • Poway, California, family "had to move quickly ... so we moved into overdrive"
  • "Right before our eyes, a lethal combination for fire was in the making"
  • "I am hopeful ... police will keep order in the mayhem that will ensue"
  • It's "surreal" to write about something that usually happens to someone else
  • Next Article in U.S. »
By Jonathan Gallen
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font

Editor's Note: The author, a physician, sent this e-mail to CNN, describing his shock and fear as he evacuated his family from wildfires near San Diego, California.

POWAY, California (CNN) -- It's 4:45 p.m. Tuesday, West Coast time.

It's like a nuclear bomb went off here in San Diego. We were evacuated from our home early this morning.

We're now at my dad's home, which is much farther south and west of the fires that are consuming millions of dollars worth of homes all over the county. I have never experienced anything like this.

Yesterday afternoon, I was working in my yard when the smell of burning leaves grabbed my attention. At the same time, a fine soot drifted into my eyes and mouth. Not good, I thought.

I went inside and turned on the TV. The news showed eight fires burning way to the east, so I thought we were going to be OK. But the Santa Ana winds kicked in, with 60-mph gusts blowing east to west. Couple that with humidity hovering around 5 percent, and right before our eyes, a lethal combination for fire was in the making. Video Watch coverage of Southern California's wildfires »

We began a simple gathering of important articles "just in case" but had no real evacuation plan, as we never thought the fire would make it to Poway. But at 5 a.m. today, SJ's boyfriend came to the door. His neighborhood up in the hills just east of us was being evacuated, and they wanted to store their classic '67 Javelin in our garage. It was then we knew the sh** was about to hit the fan.

I looked outside. My pool was black with soot, like the creature from the black lagoon was about to walk out of it. The soot was so heavy, it blocked out the sun, and there was a smoke cloud above our home that seemed to stretch for miles. Photo See dramatic photos of the destruction »

This was bad. Road closures and detours were being announced, and they were changing with each passing moment. We had to move quickly and efficiently, so we moved into overdrive.

I got the kids up, calmly asked them to load up a suitcase with clothing for a week and then to gather their schoolbooks, Xbox, photos, DVDs and any important mementos that were "irreplaceable" and start moving them into the cars.

I made sure to gather all the necessary paperwork as well: passports, birth certificates, albums, cameras, old 8 mm videotapes of the kids growing up, tax records, wedding pictures, art work, silver, cash. ... You can only imagine what comes to mind under such duress. Heavy articles like PCs, furniture, bedding, TVs and the like would be left behind with only hope to protect them.

Once loaded up, we headed south west toward my dad's home. Fortunately, he and my stepmom are away in the Mediterranean on a cruise. Diane miraculously had their house key and remembered their alarm code, so we were able to get inside their house. Even if the alarm went off, no cops were coming to a B&E with Dante's Inferno in its full fury.

We unloaded and (almost) foolishly went back to get more. 15N is the main highway that leaves San Diego and goes NE toward Las Vegas. We live off that highway and use an exit called the Ted Williams Parkway to access our town. See a map that shows the locations of major fires »

The 15N was shut down just north of Ted Williams, so we were able to make a last trip to gather some more stuff. It's amazing what becomes important under such terrible circumstances, but I think we got 95 percent or more of what really mattered. Everything else is replaceable clothes, furniture, TVs, computers, refrigerators and china.

We did get my grandmother's silver and our wedding silver out, but I'm saddened to have left behind my grandmother's dresser, china cabinet and corner hutch. Those are 100 years old, and they just don't make furniture like that anymore. Plus it was hers. My prayer is that she protects the home and guards her things, as no one took care of her belongings like she did.

At this point, we're safe and secure in my dad's house. Diane is transfixed and glued to the TV. There are several homes burning or destroyed in Poway that are less than a half-mile away from the home we left.

Across the street from the high school, multimillion-dollar homes behind gates are ashes. The high school is at risk for being torched as well. The burning embers are being transported via these 60-mph winds, jumping across wide roads and lighting up homes all over Poway. Whether or not ours goes is purely a matter of luck.

Schools are closed, and 250,000 people have been evacuated. Quaalcom stadium is filled with folks with no other place to go. Like Katrina, it is a setup for criminal activity, but so far, they do have electricity and running water. I'm hopeful that the San Diego police will keep order in the mayhem that will ensue tonight and over the next few days.

We do have insurance, of course. Before all of this, we were planning on putting the house on the market in the late winter and look to sell and downsize. SJ and Alex will be in college next fall, and we certainly don't need a 6,500-square-foot home to maintain and pay taxes on. So who knows what the future holds now.

It's odd and surreal to be writing to you and describing something that usually only happens on CNN and to someone else. The reality hasn't settled in yet.

I guess if the school burns down, SJ can tell Harvard that she had a 4.0 GPA, and they might have to take her word on that. Too bad Alex can't use the same excuse when he applies, as he is at prep school back in Massachusetts.

We did save Jordan's mid term reports: all A's. We're so proud of him and how hard he works. He is in the ninth grade, so he has time.

The fire puts a lot of perspective back in our lives; not that I need any more perspective after what we've been through these last four years. But perhaps the tough times we've weathered will make this an easier pill to swallow.


Who knows? If we get a big check, we might move back to Massachusetts. I'll keep you posted if there will be a weenie roast anytime soon at our Poway home. Until then, we're good, we're secure, and we'll move on from this.

Best regards, and wishing you lots of rain and no wind ... Jonathan E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About Wildfires

  • E-mail
  • Save
  • Print