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Late last night, Scott Lewis, Sam Hodgson and I decided to head to Del Mar and Rancho Santa Fe to get to grips with the situation. Hodgson and I had been in Rancho Santa Fe earlier and watched a home on Via De La Valle begin to burn before our eyes. No firefighters were in sight, the wind was gusting and sending dark gray smoke our way.
|A scene from The Ranch. Photo: Sam Hodgson|
The sheriffs at the checkpoint on Via De La Valle had told us we were proceeding at our own risk.
“That thing will blow up in seconds,” one said, nodding at Hodgson’s Toyota 4Runner.
When we saw the house begin to burn, we turned around and high-tailed it out of there.
That was at about 3 p.m. yesterday, so when we returned to The Ranch at about 10 p.m. last night, after hearing about evacuations in Del Mar and Torrey Pines, we expected to find apocalyptic scenes.
Instead, we drove much further east than we had been able to get earlier in the day. The fires seemed to be a lot further off, and crucially the winds were mild, giving the scene a much more serene air.
We passed the home we had seen burn earlier, which was still smoldering, and met up with a group of firefighters.
Oceanside Fire Department Battalion Chief Pete Lawrence was in charge, He said things were much calmer that earlier in the say.
“The wind has definitely died down,” he said. “That’s given us the opportunity to pick up a lot of the slack.”
But up on the hill above Lawrence, his crew was trying to knock down a huge fire in a 10,000 square foot mansion. That fire was threatening other homes in the prestigious gated community. The scene was like something out of an action movie: Flames were pouring out of the structure and kids toys, scattered all over the yard were being rained on by huge flakes of ash. Hodgson got some amazing photos and Lewis even got some video footage.
This morning, the first thing I did was head up to the mansion.
It was still on fire, but no one was paying too much attention. I guess it had largely burned out. Three firefighters were sprawled out around the garden. One guy was lying on a kids’ slide. Another was asleep on a trampoline and another was curled up on a swinging chair.
I walked around the soggy, blackened remains of the home. It looked, quite simply, like a bomb had gone off. The garage held two charred shells of cars and the house itself was knee-deep in charred furniture and ashes. Outside on what must have been a driveway, a yellow Porsche sat unscathed.
Outside the house, I met Sean Repko, who was surveying the neighborhood in his work truck. Repko said he’s in the construction industry. His wife’s the head of the community’s homeowners’ association.
Repko told me he’d been up at his home yesterday afternoon and had put out fires that flared up in palm trees at his and his neighbors’ homes. The owner of the burned-out home was simply unlucky, Repko said.
“It’s a fluke,” he said. “The houses to the left and right of him were unscathed. Maybe he left a window open or something.”
After I finished talking to Repko, a silver Mercedes sped up the community’s driveway. Inside was Derek Footer. Footer, whose family owns three houses in Rancho Santa Fe, was checking on his sister’s house, which is opposite the house that burned. I asked him how he felt when he saw it was intact.
“You know when your heart just pounds, and then you see it’s ok and you just think ‘Thank God,’” he said.
Footers’ parents’ house is in the line of fire, and he sped off to check on that.
Update: Below is a video with footage of the house burning and an eerie scene.