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Hard to believe that it’s been three years (minus a couple of days) since the Wildfire Debacle of 2003. What a goat fest that was. The book that I’ve promised to write still lingers in computer files and boxes and stacks. One day.

Meanwhile, given an opportunity to blog something for voiceofsandiego.org, I’m prompted to share some thoughts these many months away from the debacle – in random order and with no link from one memory to the other.

  • A number of U.S. Border Patrol Agents were assigned up from the border to man a fire HQ just down the I-8 from Alpine. They were to hang out there. The guys knew that and were not real happy about the assignment, but orders are orders. En route to the “hang out detail,” they drove past a neighborhood off Dunbar Lane. Fire was fast approaching a large settlement of homes. No fire trucks in sight. So the Border Patrol Agents abandoned their route to the HQ and dismounted. They set about helping homeowners battle flames with garden hoses and shovels. Not a home was lost in that neighborhood.

After the fire, the residents had a professionally made sign made up and they posted it at an intersection for all to see. On the sign, the names of each Border Patrol Agent, and many neighbors who had saved the community.

The folks at the Border Patrol HQ, though, had a problem. The agents who so valiantly saved homes had also disobeyed orders. They did not show up at their assigned HQ station. They had, in fact, defied orders. The bosses debated punishing the agents or awarding them some kind of commendation.

They actually had that debate. Eventually the verdict was to commend the agents.

I have a picture of that thank you sign taped to a cabinet above my computer at KOGO. It reminds me daily that most of the homes that were saved during the debacle were saved by homeowners and their friends and neighbors and strangers. In fact I had several professionally produced yard signs made. And I posted one at the head of our road in Dehesa Valley. “Friends and Neighbors Are The Real Heroes.”

  • Up in Crest for an evening Christmas service several weeks after the fire. Shadow Mountain Community Church had adopted the fire-ravaged community. Donated rebuilding supplies, organized volunteers to help rebuild homes for those without insurance or financial ability to rebuild, provided clothing, food, stuffed animals and counseling.

The service was wonderful. The church had trucked in a whole bunch of manufactured snow. Kids romped and played and tossed snowballs at their parents. A giant pine was festooned with the glorious lights of Christmas.

A choir sang. The community was nearly totaled by the fire and fire response from the responders was mostly nonexistent.

At one point in the service, we had our heads bowed in a moment of silence…a silence broken by the sound of a fire truck with full siren heading down the road beside the park where we congregated. A woman next to me noted softly but loud enough for most to hear: “They finally got it started.”

  • Folks still ask me if I’m back in my home. I’m always startled by the question. I know folks are being kind. But Noreen and I and Freedom and Sofie and Hiway have been back in the house for more than two years.

Noreen would not allow us not to be in a rebuilt home by the first anniversary of the Wildfire Debacle of 2003.

Noreen became the “general contractor,” on our rebuild. This despite the fact that she is a registered nurse and not a contractor by any imaginary stretch. She worked with the insurance company, hired debris-removal folks, negotiated a price and model of a manufactured home, selected the graders, the concrete folks…everyone. And when we were told the home (in three sections) could not be hauled up our windy hillside road, she yelled and screamed and found a company up in Riverside that hauled manufactured homes into impossible locations (two small tractors run by remote control…really)…and once the three parts were hooked together, Noreen was inside at every spare moment painting, directing workmen as they laid the flooring and installed gosh knows what they installed.

I helped, but only when Noreen hit a wall and needed a “man” to yell and scream (yea, there was that too).

I was frankly comfortable in our fire trailer down the hill from our new home. Noreen hated every day in the trailer. When she determined it was time for us to move up the hill, I kept putting it off. It got to be early in October of 2004 and Noreen decided it was time. She yanked my computer out of the back room in the trailer and hauled it up the hill and installed it in our new den-home office.

She knows me far too well. I followed the computer.

There are thousands of Wildfire Debacle of 2003 stories to be told. Many of them tragic. More than a dozen people died. 3000 left homeless. Many stories are about neighbors and strangers who became heroes. There are tales of massive incompetence among the various fire agencies and bureaucracies. Incompetence that cost homes and lives. Tales of government restrictions and regulations that nearly allowed the entire county to burn.

Stories yet to be told. One Day!

JIMMY VALENTINE

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