When they are forged in fire

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Traffic was backed up all the way through the canyon, tails of smoke rose in front of us and sirens frequented the shoulder of the highway.

It felt counter intuitive to be driving toward a wildfire, but that is my job. I am a journalist and we are trained to follow the smoke – this time it just happened to be literal.

I grew up in the South Bay. We do not get a lot of wildfires in that suburban labyrinth.

Traffic was backed up all the way through the canyon, tails of smoke rose in front of us and sirens frequented the shoulder of the highway.

It felt counter intuitive to be driving toward a wildfire, but that is my job. I am a journalist and we are trained to follow the smoke – this time it just happened to be literal.

I grew up in the South Bay. We do not get a lot of wildfires in that suburban labyrinth.

In 2007, the skies around us were hazy and we could see red skies from our neighbor’s hill in Bonita, but my family has never had to think about evacuations, never had to decide what to pack in a last-minute hurry as one walks through the door of their home for what may be the last time.

“It’s like a snow-day up here,” my Alpine colleague said over the phone as I drove slowly toward the West Fire on Friday afternoon. “There is white ash floating down from everywhere.”

The irony of the imagery was not lost, despite my San Diegan roots.

I passed the blocked off highway exits and the traffic thinned. Cars were pulled over along the shoulder, many of them with their hoods up to let their overheated engines cool down after trekking up the sharp incline into Alpine.

Except for the multitude of fire trucks and police vehicles, complete with flashing headlights and scurrying officers, all seemed normal.

Then I rounded the bend and the scene changed dramatically, instantly.

From the shoulder of the road to as far as I could see up the canyon lay nothing but scorched earth. Larger shrubs and trees shivered with smoke and Alpine Boulevard wound like a ghost street through burned underbrush, vacant except for a fire engine and its crew working to put out hot spots.

On the ridge across the canyon, the occasional flicker of red tongues swept up against the smoky backdrop.

My heart sank. That was someone’s home.

I pulled up to the shoulder behind a KUSI van, and beyond us was a crew from Channel 10. The Big Boys were here. No doubt, they would have up-to-the-minute coverage.

Community papers – The East County Californian and others – tend to be weekly. By the time we go to print in the middle of the week, the fire would be out – hopefully. 

As soon as I stepped out of my car, a wave of heat sank into my skin, frustrating my eyes and wrangling my nerves. The smoke did not help.

I could feel my body tense with irrational fear as adrenaline pumped through my system. I knew I was safe here, I knew the flames were far away and the smoke was not so thick that it interfered with my breathing, but humans are amazingly designed – whatever survival instincts I was given were flaring up and it took a lot of mental effort to get my hands to stop shaking as I fumbled with my camera lenses.

How then must our firefighters feel in the face of the actual fury, or residents fleeing homes or evacuating their animals? If this was even a small taste of the trauma many people were braving, then I was grateful to live safely, buried deep in the bowels of urban San Diego.

True enough, large flakes of white ash floated about like a snow flurry on the shoulder of the highway, grabbing onto my clothes and hair.

The guy from KUSI looked positively coated. He would be there till midnight, he told me at 3:30 p.m. He had been there since noon.

That is a long shift.

Despite the ghostliness of the scene, once I was there and paying attention, it became clear that it was actually a hub of activity.

Fire engines paced back and forth on the frontage road below us. The crew manning Engine 17 was pulling hoses and climbing in and out of underbrush.

Above us, helicopters came and went, dropping magnificent amounts of water onto hot spots below with incredible accuracy.

Work was being done here.

In fact, work was being done all over Alpine, I would find out over the course of the weekend.

The San Diego Department of Animal Control opened up the Lakeside Rodeo grounds as a temporary shelter for evacuated livestock. Community members came and donated water to the scared animals.

Local Little Leagues donated the profits from their weekend games to help the sister of a Cajon de Oro player who lost her home in the fire.

As police went neighborhood to neighborhood issuing evacuation orders, the community pulled together to take care of neighbors escaping the fire.

And while “thoughts and prayers” have gotten a bad rap lately, they were so thick in the air over the weekend they were almost visible.

Alpine pulls together well. They really are a small town, much like the neighborhoods of East County.

Our newsroom has been collecting stories of how the community of Alpine has responded to this devastation, hearing bits and pieces from our own friends and neighbors and stumbling into others the way one might stumble into an acquaintance in the local grocery store – it is a small town after all.

These stories have put my brief moment amid the char left by the wake of the West Fire into clarity.

A community journalist has such a different job than a reporter for a big station with a broad readership. They want statistics. How many acres were burned, how many houses were lost?

Our community already knows those numbers because we are right in the middle of it. As so many have told us, they saw the flames before they heard there was a fire.

Our job as a community paper is to tell the story about the people inside those homes, the firefighters working to save those acres.

Our job is to remind you, the community, that you are so strong, that you are holding together well, that your local heroes have proven their mettle once again.

Our job is to encourage the community to hope, to share the sorrows as well as the joys because they bring us together.

Our job is to tell your story, so you can read it back, save it on your fridge or in your scrapbook, pull it out when times are tough and say, “look how far we’ve come.”

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