Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Thanks for the e-mails, our family is fine and much, much more appreciative of the little things, Torn Slatterns and Nugget Ranchers.

Like the fifty inch Hi Def Panasonic big screen.

The good news for us in San Diego is that FEMA is on the way; the bad news? They’re responding to the 2003 Cedar fire.

Badabing. Our home is also fine, thanks.

Here are some observations after riding out a firestorm disaster:

I’m not going to lie, Sunday night, when the fires started, it was scary. But all day Monday and Monday night were absolutely pants-wetting terrifying. (No, I didn't, thanks for asking) Although we were a fairly long way (ten miles) from the fire, we were in the direct path of the Witch fire and the relentless, oncoming Santa Ana winds. When I loaded our family pictures and boxes of insurance papers in the car, it really puts things in perspective.

(Oh, by the way, wasn’t the fire scary enough without naming it the witch fire? Was the name “You are going to die” fire already taken?)

My first indication that things were not good was when the woman who is doing our very-nearly-completed front yard landscaping renovation came to our house to get the last check. No, I am not kidding.

One thing I learned is that my clothes aren’t even worth bothering to gather to keep from getting burned. Pets become a major concern because they can’t save themselves. On Monday when we packed up and I sent Ann Caroline and Virginia and our labs, Kasey and Wrigley, to our good friends, Brad and Carol’s house in Point Loma, Ann Caroline started to cry because she couldn’t take her fish, Manchester, with her. She said; “Manchester is going to burn in the fire.”

That was, I think, my low point.

With choking smoke raining down on us, your brain goes into a sort of automated check-list mode. Is it likely that most of the fabulously wealthy Rancho Santa Fe and all of amazingly wealthy Fairbanks Ranch to our north could burn up? And then is it likely that the hundreds of homes in our comfy community of Carmel Valley north of us will also burn to the ground? No, it was not likely. Was our house going to burn down? Probably not.

But it was possible.

In fact it seemed very possible our house could burn at that time. And that is what wears you out: the doubt. The uncertainty eats at you. My stomach started to hurt.

Although I was relieved that my family was out of the house and safe, I stuck around. Like I would be of some help in diverting a massive firestorm:

“Hey, firestorm, did you hear the one about the clown and the gorilla who walked into a bar?”

The second worst part, after Ann Caroline cried about her fish, Manchester, was being alone in the house and watching the news report a major traffic jam out of the newly evacuated Fallbrook, going through the Marine base Camp Pendleton. It was the fall of Saigon, San Diego style. And then the smoke was building just when the TV and the Radio went out. That was a truly lonely and scary time. Plus, I was worried sick about our friends in Poway and Rancho Bernardo which were really being hammered by the firestorm. At the time the news made it seem like everything in their neighborhood was likely gone.

They showed local weatherman Larry Himmel reporting on his own house burning down. Which begs the question, if a tree falls down in the forest and it doesn’t effect a celebrity, does it really matter?

Finally, after the longest and smokiest day and then night of my life, the phone rang at 9 pm with the reverse 911 automated call from the police telling us to get out. Believe it or not, ending the uncertainty of what to do was a relief. It was time to leave.

It surprised me, but I had a growing sense of even more relief when I finally got in the car, Monday night, and evacuated to Point Loma to join my family and friends. One way or the other, my family was safe with good friends. We ate awesome Ossa Bucco and drank red wine and turned off the news and watched the first Harry Potter.

The sentiment you heard expressed over and over was that houses and stuff – although the process will be a nightmare – can be replaced. People and pets cannot. One person, who lost her house and garage, told the reporter: "At least I don't have to worry about organizing the garage."

(What does it say about insurance companies when the possibility of dealing with them runs a close second to worrying about burning to death?)

Tuesday I woke up (I slept a little) with a very calm feeling. It turns out something wonderful happened overnight: the wind died. I drove back to our house and the mood was 80% better. Much less smoke, no wind. And the firefighters were absolutely amazing. The next time somebody calls some over-paid primma donna overly-talented jock a hero, they can go do something really bad to themselves.

When I turned on the news on the TV Tuesday morning, the news was not as good as I had hoped. The firefighters were battling a bad fire in Rancho Santa Fe- eight miles away – and the Santa Ana winds were starting to kick back up. The pain in my stomach returned. And then they told Del Mar -just West and North of us - to evacuate. Oh no. Here we go again.

You won't believe what made the pain in my stomach better. Believe it or not, the press conference when our Gubenator, Ahhhhnold Schwarzenegger , hugged the head of the fire department. No, I am not an idiot. I know that Ahhhnold can’t deploy an army of cyborgs to fight the fires, but it was comforting to see him on the spot and looking concerned. If there is one thing we know about Arnold is that he isn’t a good enough actor to fake looking concerned. Arnold really was concerned.

You know what sight really made me feel good? On the news at Qualcomm stadium, a hip “Entourage” replica convertible Lincoln, with suicide doors, pulled up with two young, jamoke-wannabe-hipsters complete with backward ball caps, bling and “Yo, yo, yo, check it” hand gestures, yucking it up. What was in the back of that hipster Lincoln? A backseat stacked with cases of bottled water they bought to drop off for the evacuees. Bless their “check it before you wreck it” hearts. There is hope for the future.

But I still think their music sucks.

Finally, by Tuesday evening, it looked like everything was going to be fine. They issued an all clear for the area just West of us, Del Mar Heights, and way east of us, Scripps Ranch – the neighborhood totaled in the 2003 fire. Those two all-clears on either side of us made me feel much better. And, either way, my family was still safe for the night in Point Loma. (Thanks again Brad and Carol) Time to open some wine. You can get through anything with family, friends and red wine.

So I ventured out in the car to see what was what in the neighborhood and I was amazed to see the grocery store up and running and people – although a lot fewer than normal – shopping. Technically we were still in an area of a mandatory evacuation, which wouldn’t be lifted until now, Wednesday morning, but things seemed to be getting back to normal. It turns out our friends in Poway and Rancho Bernardo are fine. Many of their neighbors were not, but they were fine.

There is no doubt this was an awful tragedy with thousands left without a home. Essentially, the city of San Diego was in a bad accident that will leave permanent scars. Not to say that it is all over. There are still people in serious danger as we speak. And we will all have to pitch in to help as much as we can. And we will. My fellow San Diegans made me very proud this week. Very proud.

How do I know things are probably going to be OK? The landscape lady is back and she has her workers finishing up the work on our front yard.

And we don’t even owe her any more money.

Here is running checklist of things I observed during the firestorm:
Firefighters? Incredible. Can you imagine saving some stranger's house from burning when you are not sure if your own house is going up that very second? Every time I saw, on the news, a helicopter dump a huge bucket of water on a fire, I wanted to cheer. Some fire fighting crews worked a 60 hour shift. Are you kidding me? I can't do anything for six hours, let alone fight fires.

Local newscasters? Awesome. Particularly KNSD’s Marty Levine and Susan Taylor. Voices of calm in a sea of fear. And they went for three days straight. Except for Stan Miller, he is - and will always be - a self-important, pompous tool. Think Ron Burgandy without the self-depricating sense of humor. Keep it clueless, Stan Miller.

President Bush? Pretty much what you’d suspect: vacant, useless and uncaring except for the requisite photo-op to come on Thursday.

The Internet? When all else failed, you could keep track of things on your computer.

Arnold Schwarzenegger? You folks outside California can laugh at us all you want for electing the terminator, but he made a positive difference if not just psychologically. Plus he made us realize just how much of a massive, worthless, suckbag weasel our old governor, Gray Davis, really was during the Cedar fire of 2003. Gray, I hope you Google this and know this feeling is multiplied by a million.

The national news? What a bunch of utter sleazebags. Listen, I understand we all have to feed the big bad money-making machine, but how dare they sensationalize our tragedy for the sake of selling toilet paper and tampons? The national news put together a collage of the worst video clips together and ran them in a constant loop that made me feel, even after the winds died and things looked 90% better, like we were living in the middle of the Dresden firebombing. How do they live with themselves? OK, besides selling more toothpaste, maybe their over-dramatizing the story brought more sympathy and help to San Diego. Maybe. But that clearly wasn't their intent.

Our knucklehead Labradors, Wrigley and Kasey? It turns out they are smart enough to know when something is wrong. Wrigley and Kasey were troopers, especially Kasey. Wrigley still is pretty much on "What does this have to do about me or my food?" mode, but he was pretty good.

Katie Couric? What a nasty little grasping tool. There is no doubt in my mind she would step on the body of a fallen widow to get to a more interesting interview subject. If CBS was smart they would make her go away like Rosie and Star Jones.

Matt Lauer? A slightly more likeable grasping tool. Ditto for Brian Williams.

My wife, Virginia? She was a trooper and her well-organized collection of our financial papers and insurance stuff was a blessing. But . . . although her ability to edit her thoughts before speaking is never really good, it disappears altogether in a potential crisis. Virginia would say things out loud, in front of Ann Caroline, like; “Should I e-mail our dentist to send our records to my parents in case they need to identify us by our dental records?”

Ann Caroline? What a little class act. Perfect behavior. Her priorities are so good and intact, no thanks to me. I am so proud of her I could cry with happiness.

Back to writing jokes tomorrow. You never know when you might need a good one to fight off a firestorm. The best joke from the fire I've heard so far? It was Jimmy Kimmel:

“The smoke was so thick in Malibu you couldn’t see Britney Spears’s vagina.”

Oh, and Manchester-the-fish is fine, thanks for asking.