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Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2007 | San Diego was a patchwork of contrasts Monday.

In Escondido, eyes were red and blurry. Nobody stepped outside without a facemask, and displaced residents from places like Ramona and Santa Ysabel wandered around shopping mall parking lots like zombies, hunting for water or information, or both. In North County, a foul-smelling wind whipped at hair and carried flakes of ash and the burned seeds of trees as far as the sands of Solana Beach, where the smoke was so thick it hurt to breathe. Houses burned on the eastern edge of Rancho Santa Fe, burning millions of dollars of real estate an hour.

A few miles north and south, a wall of orange-gray smoke gave way to blue skies swept clean by the hurricane-force winds. In Vista, pizza delivery workers continued to work their shifts. In downtown San Diego, though many workers did not show, the sun shone and life appeared to carry on much as normal. In Ocean Beach, the surfers were out.

Almost four years to the day after the catastrophic Cedar Fire, San Diego burned again. In 2003, a dense, soot-filled smog blanketed the entire region and deposited the charred remains of vegetation and homes in almost every San Diego backyard. But in these fires, evacuees fleeing from smoke-smothered neighborhoods could drive five minutes and find themselves in a different world.

And though officials described the wildfires as catastrophic and unprecedented, many San Diegans were ready early, the memories of 2003 still imprinted in their minds. Other factors worked in San Diego’s favor too: Unlike the Cedar Fire, this time the firestorm started during daylight hours, giving firefighters and residents a head-start. Last time the fires struck, many of the county’s resources were tied up fighting fires in Northern California. This time, Northern California sent thousands of rigs our way.

As the fires charred swaths of the county Sunday and Monday, they exiled a quarter of a million residents. Only 50,000 people were evacuated from the 2003 fires that killed 15.

RVs and horse-trailers and minivans loaded with luggage converged on evacuation centers dotted around the region. By the end of the day Monday, mandatory or advisory evacuations spread to all corners of the county: From Dulzura and Chula Vista in the south, Fallbrook and Valley Center in the north, Alpine, Harbison Canyon and Crest in the east, and Torrey Pines, Solana Beach and Del Mar to the west.

The displaced found pockets of salvation in areas only brushed by ash and the fiery stench — places such as area high schools, Del Mar Fairgrounds and Qualcomm Stadium.

For some, it was a hellish, unimaginable scene. For others, it was all too familiar.  

Thousands descended on Qualcomm Stadium, where the parking lot resembled a tailgating party, though the only bottles being unscrewed were mineral water, not light beer.

Pat and Mike Scherer leaned against their red Toyota Tacoma there in the mid-afternoon Monday. It was their 41st wedding anniversary. Instead of a nice dinner out, they fled their home near Ted Williams Parkway within 15 minutes after Mike turned on the television at 4:30 a.m. and saw how large the fire had grown.

“This anniversary kind of has ’em all beat,” Pat Scherer said, sitting in a lawn chair beside the truck, wearing a light blue t-shirt, shorts and a sparkly ball cap. She’d pinned a guardian angel to her shirt. “If we live to be 100, without a doubt, this is one to remember,” she said.

Mike Scherer tried to keep things light.

“I’m 70 years old and I haven’t done anything like this in 30 years,” he said. “I feel like a Boy Scout out camping.”

But the sinking feeling is familiar for the Scherers. They’ve lost a home before, to a tornado in Kentucky. With friends who lost homes in the Cedar Fire, the Scherers knew to pack their insurance papers and important documents.

Inside the stadium, with images of what they’d left behind in their minds, people ate and slept and hunted for any scrap of information they could get. Often the news wasn’t good.

“If they are in anyway downwind from the fires, they need to seriously think about finding somewhere else to be for some period of time,” said Bill Metcalf, the area’s fire coordinator on Monday morning.

Robert Mann waited near rows of evacuees watching coverage of the fires on television screens for his wife. During a bout of insomnia at 3 a.m. Monday, Mann said he’d heard fire trucks and walked outside his Rancho Bernardo home to see embers falling from the sky. That’s when he woke up his wife, Eunice.

When they moved to San Diego from Boston 20 years ago, their family worried about earthquakes.

“My kids never wanted us to move out here,” Eunice Mann said. “Now, I don’t know what will happen.”

“Maybe we’ll go back to Boston,” Robert Mann said. “The only thing is, I couldn’t lose her. Fifty-six years, we’ve been together.”

Further north, another evacuation center was set up at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. Inside a cavernous hall, dozens of dogs barked at each other, officials handed out bottled water and families sat around playing Uno and other card games.

The wind decided hourly which way to blow the fire, which neighborhood to scare next. A few miles east of the scenes of relative relief in Del Mar, the fire had started lapping into the edges of prestigious Rancho Santa Fe. Eucalyptus-fringed Via De La Valle, which runs from Rancho Santa Fe to the coast, had become a dangerously dry channel for the Witch Fire, which was chomping its way determinedly towards the ocean.

“This is already in Rancho Santa Fe and if it gets into the valley, it may head into Encinitas,” said Oceanside Fire Chief Terry Garrison. “When it gets into the valleys is when we start getting into trouble — when we start getting spearheads along the canyons.”

By Monday evening, those spearheads were headed straight for the coast and Interstate 5 had become a parking lot as residents fled for the cleaner air and brighter outlook outside the path of the roaring winds.

County officials admitted impotence in the face of the fire.

“Mother Nature has control of those winds and no one else,” said county Supervisor Dianne Jacob.

The winds showed no sign of stopping, and Jeff Bowman, who was fire chief of San Diego when the Cedar Fire hit four years ago, said firefighters were largely at the mercy of the wind’s whims.

“With this kind of a weather event, they’re doing all they can do,” Bowman said. “When you have winds traveling at this speed, at this sustained force, all they can do is evacuate and rescue. You can’t put firefighters in the way of those fire heads.”

At their spot in the parking lot at Qualcomm, the Scherers checked in with their son, a pilot for Delta, who watched their home on his global positioning system. Last they’d heard, the home was still there.

“Mother Nature has really done a number on us today,” Pat Scherer said. “But once you’ve been through it, you know. You get your stuff and you get out.”

Please contact Kelly Bennett or Will Carless directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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