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Thursday, Oct. 26, 2006 | I always get up before dawn. On this date, Oct. 26, three years ago, where I live in east La Mesa, I flipped on a kitchen light, ushered the puppies out the front door, and stepped outside to gauge the morning. The sky was dark as usual, but it was different. Predawn skies are black and deep and alive, but this sky was black and close and dead. In two seconds I knew what it was.

In my first 20 years of San Diego County residence, I lived in what was then called the Back Country, in Jamul. Now, Jamul is in the near-Back Country and creeping toward (argh) suburb status, but they still know about fire out there.

Living in Jamul for all that time taught me a lot about fire. I even covered a fire once, in Proctor Valley, because it was a Sunday and the other San Diego Union reporters were busy with a big fire that destroyed a lot of homes in North Park.

I learned to pay attention to smoke. If you smell smoke, even the tiniest whiff, stop what you are doing and find it. My son Tyler and I were putting up a basketball goal, down by the garage one day in the 1980s, when I got a whiff of smoke. It straightened me up like an electric shock. I spun around, looking for the smoke, and I saw it, down the hill, at the foot of a long slope in front of the house. The slope ended at a line of eucalyptus trees along a creek, what we called Mexican Canyon, about 300 yards below the house. The smoke was beyond the trees, drifting up in a thin, gray line.

“Tyler!” I yelled. “Come on!” And we ran up the driveway to the house. His mother and sister weren’t home. I ran into the kitchen to the phone and dialed 911. It must have been 15 seconds between the basketball goal and the phone, but when I looked out the window at the smoke, it had bloomed into ribbons of fire. In the time it took to yell location at the 911 operator, the ribbons doubled. I didn’t feel good. A fire below us, with eucalyptus trees to feed on and a dry slope to climb.

Tyler and I started carrying stuff out of the house and into the car. We hadn’t made two trips when neighbors with trucks showed up – as I say, Jamulians know a lot about fire – and started carrying out stuff too. It didn’t take long, though it seemed forever, for the Jamul volunteer fire department to get there. The fire was halfway up the slope, and the wind with it, but thank God it was only a breeze. Then a yellow borate bomber from Ramona was circling, then lining up for a pass over the house and a drop onto the fire line.

In he came, roaring, one of the old Navy twin-engined S-2s, and dropped his load. Some of it speckled onto me. I looked at the pink spots and had the thought that this was the third time, in my San Diego journalism career, that I had been bombed by fire retardant. The big difference this time was that it was my day off, and it was my house.

The fire was stopped, and all ended well, neighbors carried stuff back in, and we all sucked on a beer while we watched the volunteer firemen clean up the hot spots. The fire started, they said, in an area along the dry creek that was used as an illegal dump. I remembered hearing earlier, tires spinning below, probably someone dumping and having trouble getting out. The heat of that tire friction sparked the fire.

The smoke in the black sky of Sunday, Oct. 26, 2003, was different. I never smelled it. Had to be the wind and weather. The smoke stayed aloft, but the cloud was colossal. I looked all around, from the east to west horizons, and I couldn’t see an edge to it. Then as the light rose, I could see, and it stretched the imagination.

I couldn’t see any flames in the east, because they were north of me. It was the Sunday morning of the Cedar Fire, the Sunday during the day when it raced westward into the city at a speed of 6,000 acres an hour. Friends were coming for lunch, and they showed up, even though the cloud now was a sour red and shut out the entire blue sky. They left early when reports came that the fire was jumping Interstate 15. That night, in the east, I saw flames as the fire pushed into the Alpine area. I got stuff together and carried it to the car and watched for any rise in the wind.

It never came. I remained safe, though essentially locked inside for a week (the Grossmont College campus closed on Sunday and remained closed all week, becoming a base for firefighters) by this apocalyptic red cloud in the sky, and ashes falling like snow. The effect of the fire elsewhere is history, being observed again yesterday and today in the media, and of course in the minds of anyone who was anywhere close by.

On Oct. 24, 2004, I started watching for smoke, sniffing for it. It was the eve of the first anniversary, and it was having a physical effect. Then it started to rain, and it rained for several days. On Oct. 25, 2003, a fire that burned 10 percent of the county. On Oct., 25, 2004, rain. Gray, wet clouds, and absolute safety from fire on the first anniversary. It was something that God would do.

Much has happened since, in government and private efforts to prevent another Cedar Fire. But in San Diego County, we all know about fire. As long as it rains, and the sun shines, and Santa Anas come, and people live here, and we aren’t careful, or even if we are, even if we try as hard as we can to stop it, another morning will come someday when we step outside in the predawn and see that there’s something wrong with the dark.

Journalist, author and educator Michael Grant has been putting his spin on San Diego, and the city putting its spin on him, since 1972. His Web site is at www.michaelgrant.com. Or, send a letter to the editor.

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