Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2007 | Carol Tutunjian’s husband, Steve, shook her awake Monday morning with an urgent message: “We gotta get out of here.”
Smoke and sirens permeated the Westwood community of Rancho Bernardo in the wee hours Monday. The couple’s stained glass windows glowed orange. Tongues of fire engulfed their neighbors’ homes. As Tutunjian fled her neighborhood, she drove through a tunnel of fire — flames reached to the sky on either side of her car.
“We just escaped with our lives,” Tutunjian said. “I drive through flames with a bird, a dog and my 12-year-old daughter.”
On Monday, the thrill of survival gave way to a sinking feeling. The Tutunjians were certain their home was gone. But Tuesday afternoon, a policeman on a motorcycle returned from escorting another person to the Tutunjian’s neighborhood, where the four homes across the street burned, along with three next to theirs.
He asked them if they had a Snoopy outside. If so, their house was standing.
“We have one of those Snoopy Halloween flags,” she said, her eyes wide in disbelief as she recounted the events of the last two days. “My husband broke down crying when he heard that.”
The story of orderly, just-in-case evacuations from the fires this week — where homeowners had time to gather photographs and insurance papers — didn’t apply to many neighborhoods in Rancho Bernardo. Many residents had nary a thought Sunday night that the Witch Fire could grow from Ramona to reach them, only to awake to flames in their front yards and smoke alarms sounding. So many fled with barely the clothes on their backs in the wee hours that the Police Department mobilized escorts Tuesday to help evacuees retrieve medications.
And so the shy community adjusted Tuesday to an unusual feeling: Being in the center of the news. With neighborhoods that cater alternately to families or retirees, Rancho Bernardo’s golf courses, winery, neighborhood clubhouses and parks typically give it its quiet, inland North County feel.
But RB magnetized television cameras and news teams Tuesday as a spot from which to deliver live updates. Blankets of gray smoke stifled views of the familiar ridges. Evacuees congregated in parking lots, barred from entering their neighborhoods but with a police escort, desperate for bits of news about their homes. Military police in camouflage toted automatic weapons, enforcing roadblocks.
Even those who used the medicine-retrieval escorts as a chance to check on their homes could only do so for a fleeting moment. They grabbed a quick preview of the devastation in their neighborhood as quickly as they grabbed their pill bottles out of bathroom cabinets, and then were forced to return to temporary shelters, hotel rooms and friends’ homes for at least another 24 hours.
In the Albertson’s parking lot at Pomerado Road and Rancho Bernardo Road, John LaManna held his dog, Freddy, on a leash. His eyes were bleary, his gray curly hair mussed from sleeping in his car in the parking lot.
“I’ve heard conflicting reports,” he said. “I’ve heard that 23 of the 25 homes on my street are gone. But then another person said only three houses burned down.”
LaManna wasn’t the only one in the dark. At the Holiday Inn on West Bernardo Drive, which became Ground Zero for the medicine retrieval effort, hundreds lined up and compared stories with others from their community, asking the ones ahead of them in the police escort line to check on their homes. Waiting in line, the beleaguered evacuees summoned enough energy to cheer or form thumbs-up signs whenever a fire truck drove past. Over the hills in the distance, the fire continued to rage.
Every once in a while, police took people to homes that were no longer standing.
One sergeant who returned often to the Albertson’s parking lot from driving around the neighborhoods drew crowds pressing him for information. He eventually gave up telling people seeking the medicine escort to go down the road to the Holiday Inn, and started taking two or three at a time himself.
On one trip, Gene Rosner peered through the back passenger window of the sergeant’s police car and saw a home down the street from his completely torched. Half of its skeleton stood, charred. When Rosner signaled where his front yard was, on a street off of Escala Drive near Pomerado Road, the first thing visible was shingles and debris, laying in piles.
The other three in the car held their breath, worried his home was gone.
But Rosner expected the debris. It was from his old, fire-risk, shake shingle roof.
“Just had a roof put on; Saturday they finished,” he muttered over and over. “My roof was shake until Saturday, I just switched the roof. The guy came Tuesday and it took him five days. I have to call him in the next couple of days and thank him.”
In those quiet neighborhoods, branches and leaves were strewn across sidewalks and thoroughfares. Some trees lay entirely on their sides, casualties of the winds that whipped through the valleys and spread the fires early Monday.
With another three evacuees in the car, the sergeant drove through the Trails neighborhoods, where mansion-lined cul-de-sacs have been nestled amid mature trees for decades.
And homes in The Trails neighborhoods were devastated at random.
Scott Blanchard directed the sergeant through the winding, hilly neighborhoods with his eye out for three houses — his parents’, his dentist’s and his own, where he needed to pick up some medicines.
On the way, he and the other two passengers, the Szentesis, noticed so many scorched homes that they borrowed a pen from the sergeant and scribbled down addresses on a paper grocery bag.
And then, he saw it. His parent’s home, just a minute or two from his own, was completely burned.
“Oh man. It’s gone. Wow, it’s gone,” he said. “It’s totally gone.”
The dentist’s and his own — with a wheelbarrow full of smoldering ashes in the front driveway — fared better. But for a few of the streets for which Blanchard scribbled addressed to update his neighbors, like Agusto Way, fewer homes were left standing than burned.
And then, it was on to the Szentesis’ home, further up Pomerado Road, closer to Interstate 15, closer to the worst-hit neighborhoods. As Kristie Szentesi, a fourth grade teacher, directed the sergeant to the street she’s called home for 20 years, the sergeant grew worried. He’d seen that street earlier in the day, and the scene was grim. He warned them, over and over. You might not —
“We know what you’re about to say,” she said. “We know.”
The street was indeed grim. According to a list of destroyed homes in RB compiled by City Councilman Brian Mainschein, the Locksley Street victims were at least a dozen.
Though the Szentesi’s house, 18650 Locksley Street, remained, the two houses on the right were totally burned. The house on the left, burned. Across the street, burned, burned, burned. In the charred remains of one house next door, smoke rose in a curly stream from a pile of mangled metal.
With her neighborhood as a stage, Szentesi acted out the scene from Monday morning. The Szentesis didn’t wake up to the loudspeaker commands to evacuate — their neighbors escaped nearly an hour before they woke up to embers burning the trees outside their house.
“When we were leaving at 5:20 [a.m.], all of these trees were on fire,” she said. “That house, right over there, was completely on fire. And embers from the trees were blowing right into homes. It was just all so fast. Our neighbors couldn’t imagine we stayed there for another 45 minutes.”
And Szentesi could barely believe her house was standing. She went in for medications and grabbed a change of clothes while she was at it. She found just two anomalies: scorched blinds and a strange cat. A relief.
But back at Albertson’s and at the Holiday Inn, even those whose own homes were spared mourned the community’s loss. Some began to envision how it would grow from the disaster.
“It’s going to be a major facelift,” said Steve Tutunjian, Carol’s husband. “People will rebuild, with a whole different set of architecture.”
Carol Tutunjian couldn’t quite get to the dream stage — her memory of the nightmare evacuation is still too potent.
“We were miraculously spared,” she said. “I’m just in total shock.”
Maienschein and his staff combed the neighborhoods, compiling lists of the destroyed homes. He said he learned to do that when another neighborhood he represents, Scripps Ranch, was devastated by the Cedar Fire in 2003.
“The hardest part really is not knowing,” Maienschein said. “If you find out your house is still standing, you feel relieved, and if not, you start getting to the point in your mind where you’re going to rebuild.”