Friday, Oct. 27, 2006 | When the 2003 Cedar Fire broke out, we were enjoying amazingly warm, clear blue skies in San Francisco with 50-plus miles of visibility. From Alcatraz Island we could see out the Golden Gate and to all parts of the bay. We strolled Golden Gate Park and visited the museums, without a care in the world. We knew nothing about the predawn outbreak of the Cedar Fire until we arrived at the San Francisco airport.
We found that our flight had just been allowed to leave for San Diego, because massive fires had closed the airport all day long at Lindbergh Field.
When we flew into the San Diego airspace, after dark, making that long, left-hand turn from the north county beaches to the inland valleys through Mission Gorge and above Tierrasanta, we could see flames out the windows in both directions.
The advancing fire front appeared to be one continuous, red, topographic map elevation line, threading in and out, back and forth through the hills, valleys and canyons. It stretched from Scripps Ranch to the Mexican border, because the Otay Fire picked-up the line where it left off from the southern edge of the Cedar Fire.
What we saw that night has never been relayed through TV coverage because the fire was at its peak and there were no helicopters in the air to cover it. Probably, most of the news crews were off work, because it was Sunday night.
It took me back to 1970, when we stood on our rooftops in Southeast San Diego, just west of Spring Valley, and watched the flames burn over the top of Mount Miguel. I remember the ashes in the gutters the next morning.
But this fire was burning through the city.
“Oh, my God. It looks like a scene from Hell,” my girlfriend said. And she wasn’t being poetic. She was overcome with real emotion.
In Tierrasanta and the area around Cowles Mountain, I saw cars heading downhill, towards the beach, leaving their burning homes one block behind them, flames eating the rooftops.
I noticed, curiously, that the direction of the smoke was peeling back, uphill, away from the advancing flame front, which looked a lot like a slow-rolling wave of liquid lava.
Fortunately, the Santa Ana winds had stopped. Otherwise, the fire would have already reached our homes in Point Loma, and the entire city would have been lost.
Much has been said about the first 15 minutes of the fire, Saturday at dusk, and how it might have been stopped. But, by Sunday night, I could see from the air that the fire line was so long and wide that I knew there weren’t enough fire trucks in the entire country to stop it; it would just have to burn itself out.
But the worst was yet to come.
When we got out over the El Cajon Valley, we could see the region of Crest going up in a volcanic conflagration.
The flames had ringed the mountain, and were racing upward, converging toward the top. Propane tanks were going off like a war movie. The updraft of fire, heat and smoke was creating a giant thunderhead, some 40,000 feet in the sky.
And we were flying right towards it.
“Oh, no, we’re not going to fly through that fire,” I said to my girlfriend. “OK, you can start your right-hand turn anytime now,” I said aloud, half hoping the pilot could hear me and start turning away from the fire and back towards the airport.
I knew from flying paragliders that you want to avoid clouds; they’re turbulent. I know that airliners fly around thunderheads, not through them. And this angry fire cloud was bigger than any thunderhead I’ve ever seen. Surely, the cockpit crew could see what was ahead of them and would know that it could be the death of us all if they didn’t change their pre-ordained flight plan.
But, no. The plane stayed the course, probably on autopilot, and flew right into the heat of the inferno.
When the foreword tip of the 737 breached the mushroom cloud it felt like we had just crashed. The plane shook violently and gyrated in different directions of shudder. The overhead compartments started popping open. The cabin started filling with smoke. I could no longer see the tip of the wing from my window. The wings were flapping like a pelican’s. We were turning, but I could feel us falling. And, it was totally dark.
“I’m not enjoying this one bit,” I said, tersely, to my girlfriend, who is afraid to fly. What I really meant was, “I’m afraid we are going to die. I’ve got four children on the ground, and I don’t want them to have to find out that their daddy was on the plane that crashed when it flew into the fire.”
It was two minutes of continuous terror. We were all scared to a hush, hanging on tight, but quiet.
Then we popped out the other side, intact, shaken, but alive.
We flew over the city, back to the beach. A pall of smoke hung in the air, blanketing everything. The sodium vapor lights never do give much illumination anyway, but the addition of this thick layer of smoke added to the surrealism.
We got off the plane and the flight deck crew stood like mannequins, wax smiles on their faces, like everything went according to normal. I’ll bet they had stained underwear.
Taxi drivers from Egypt, Africa, Arabia and Afghanistan were standing around, coughing, some with kerchiefs across their faces, cursing under their contaminated breaths that they had to be there, even while there were no passengers.
It was all so strange. I kept looking around around for the late Rod Serling, knowing he had to be imminently ready to step out from behind the taxi kiosk, hand in his suit pocket, wearing his signature pencil thin necktie to announce, “You have just entered the Twlight Zone.”