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On Foot or in Cars, Victims Had No Escape

Winding canyon roads were a trap for some trying to flee in San Diego County. The fires' death toll is the highest in the state since 1991.

October 27, 2003|Tony Perry and Geoffrey Mohan | Times Staff Writers

SAN DIEGO — Fires that roared up with no warning and bore down with no mercy trapped victims along narrow canyon roads in San Diego County early Sunday, killing some in their vehicles while others died as they tried to run away.

Of the 11 dead, at least two were children who were with their parents as they tried to escape the flames, said San Diego County officials.

The blaze, known as the Cedar fire, hit the semirural area around Ramona, about 20 miles northeast of downtown San Diego, shortly after 3 a.m., blacking out power and rousting residents from their beds with little warning.

The 11 deaths were the highest wildfire toll in the state since the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, which claimed 25 lives.

Most of the deaths Sunday occurred as the fire swept through the narrow Wildcat Canyon area on the Barona Ranch Indian Reservation.

Three victims died within the reservation borders -- one in a vehicle and two on foot, according to the San Diego County sheriff's office.

Four others -- two in a single vehicle, one in a motor home and one on foot -- died on Muth Valley Road, a narrow, winding mountain highway that connects Ramona to Wildcat Canyon Road, according to the sheriff's office.

An eighth victim died in his trailer along Yellow Brick Road in the Paradise fire, a separate fire near another small rural town, Valley Center. That blaze also claimed the life of ninth person, who died in a vehicle after apparently driving to a Valley Center fire station that was overrun by the fire.

Two other victims were dead on arrival at local hospitals, apparent victims of the Cedar fire.

No names were released, nor were the exact circumstances of any of the deaths clear.

Fire personnel admitted being overwhelmed by the number, speed and erratic movements of the fires.

"We have everything sent out that we can possibly send out," said fire dispatcher Ron Dumbey. "And we are asking for all that we can get."

California Highway Patrol spokeswoman Cathy Fritz said: "It's a nightmare. It's a mess."

The Cedar fire apparently began when a lost hunter launched a flare in a wooded area near Julian. The blaze spread rapidly westward toward more urbanized areas, pushed by desert winds, according to San Diego County Sheriff Bill Kolender.

The area where the fire began is a rapidly developing region where avocado groves and trailer parks mix with estate homes. Many of those who live in the region work on farms and ranches while others commute down I-15 to San Diego's business districts.

Like many residents, Tepsuo Matsui was surprised when the fire headed for his home. "We could see it, it was over two ridges from us. Then the flames started to back up on us. I threw whatever I could in the car and got out."

People said they may have been lulled into a false security because aerial tankers use Ramona airport as a base. But when the fire erupted, the planes were fighting fires elsewhere.

Only in the afternoon did firefighting aircraft begin dropping water, but California Department of Forestry officials said the thick, dark smoke and treacherous winds limited the use of aerial tankers.

The San Diego Fire Department issued a call for all firefighters to report for duty. The San Diego Police and Sheriff's departments said they could no longer respond to nonemergency calls, given the large number of officers assisting in rescues and the evacuation process.

Tom Crandall said he and his wife had tried to calm their daughter's fears Saturday night.

"You could see the glow of the embers in the distance," Crandall said. "She was afraid that the fire was going to get us and burn us. I told her not to worry, that it would take forever to get here."

Three hours later, Crandall said, the family was forced to flee: "It was weird, my daughter was crying, it was pitch black and wind everywhere."

Crandall did take time to hook up his 20-foot boat to his vehicle. "It's expensive. I couldn't see leaving it if I could get it."

Some residents searched their memories for experiences comparable to the ferocity of the fire and the eerie orange glow. "I lived through a volcanic eruption in Alaska where I grew up," said Al Webber of Tierrasanta. "It gave me the same feeling."

Webber said that in previous fires, firefighters and helicopters accomplished a quick knockdown. "There was nothing like that this time," Webber said. "I just think they were overwhelmed."

As one branch of the fire hit the Ramona area, another hit Scripps Ranch, one of San Diego's more upscale neighborhoods. There, Violet Ingrum had stayed up late refinishing furniture in her home. She went to bed worried that her daughter, who lives in Hollywood, might be in danger from the growing number of wildfires.

She awoke to find the danger much closer to home: There was a howling wind and the horrifying sight of flames beyond her back fence, and debris falling into her swimming pool. She and her daughter, Elizabeth, grabbed their two cats and two photo albums and fled.

One cat jumped out of the car. Ingrum thought about going back, but neighbors were screaming for her to get out.

"The smoke was so black you couldn't see a foot in front of your face," she said.

Taking refuge at an American Red Cross center at a local high school, Ingrum joined others watching on television as five channels showed images of homes being destroyed and overtaxed firefighters unable to stop the fire's march.

Elsewhere in Scripps Ranch, Gary Webb awoke about 3 a.m. after smelling smoke. By 7 a.m., flames were on the fringes of his property. He and his wife escaped with their dog and parakeet.

Like other residents, he was surprised to see a lack of firefighters. "There's only so many of them," said Webb, general manager of a Nissan dealership. "They've got a tough job today."

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