San Diego Stories by Salvatore Filippone

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June 16, 2005

the burning of san diego

I awoke at 10:30 am to near darkness. Dim light spilled into my studio through the slits in the blinds. Confused, I got out of bed, a little hung over from the night before. The throbbing headache was the payback for breaking my vow not to ever drink ‘like that’ again. From my bathroom, I noticed the red-tinge to the light coming through the window. Had there been a solar eclipse? Usually they announce that stuff in advance. I decided to take look outside. Pulling open my door, I stuck my head out and looked up, seeing for the first time a cloud of smoke so enormous that my mouth opened and caught a few bits of ash that were raining down out of the sky. The only words I could utter were “Holy Shit.”

It was a surreal scene. The smoke cloud cut a wide swath in the sky, completely dividing the city into light and dark. From my porch, I saw Downtown, which was still enjoying a nice, sunny morning. A little over a mile north, the rest of the city, starting from Middletown, as far up to La Jolla, was blanketed in a heavy red darkness. Ash was neatly piling up in the gutter next to my porch. The odd thing was that there was no smell of smoke. I knew something was burning, and from the looks of it was big. I called my folks to find out if there was a fire in Mission Hills. My mother had been watching the news, and told me that the fire had been burning since last night, up near Ramona, but had rapidly spread down to Lakeside and Santee.

Within that hour, the fire had jumped a major freeway, Interstate 15, and made its way west, devouring almost everything in its path.

The speed of this fire was phenomenal. By the time I showered, dressed and went to my folks’ place, an hour had passed. Within that hour, the fire had jumped a major freeway, Interstate 15, and made its way west, devouring almost everything in its path. The 60mph winds made it possible for the flames to dart across the width of the Interstate, igniting brush in seconds and turning it into a wall of flame within minutes. The Santa Ana winds were upon the city, helping the fire to spread.

The year had been a dry one so far. 177 days without rain, according to a local weatherman. The city hasn’t had a really wet year for a while now, causing brush to dry out and making conditions ripe for fire. The county has had its share of brush fires, especially in East County, but none were as big as this. The Normal Heights fire was the last really big blaze in San Diego proper, and happened in 1985.

After some time, I decided to venture out, going to Mass down in the old neighborhood. By noon, the smoke was so thick in the atmosphere that the sun’s brilliance was muted. It hung there in the dull red sky, sunspots exposed. The mood at church was somber. During the service, a number of families filed out in a hurry. Father Luigi later explained that their homes were in danger. The situation was quickly getting worse.

I wandered into the Princess Pub afterwards to check the news. The fire was as close as it would get that Sunday, but no one knew what was really going on. As far as anybody knew, the entire city was in danger. I couldn’t imagine my folks’ place burning down, let alone mine, but the possibility was so tangible that my stomach began to knot up. People were being evacuated left and right, the streets and sidewalks were empty, and the folks that did venture out were all worried, walking about like zombies. By 1pm, the fire was still gaining speed and energy, and was completely out of control. Local news announced that our firemen were spread thin. I had scanned the major news networks for anything about the situation, but found nothing. Nobody seemed to know that San Diego was on fire, besides San Diegans.

When help finally did come, the fire had done most of its damage. The gravity of the situation was tremendous. It has been named the worst fire disaster in California history, even beating out the San Francisco Earthquake fire. It burned for ten days, consumed over 280,000 acres, 2,232 homes and took 15 lives.

On the second day of the fires, I saw a photograph of my boss in the newspaper. Her home had been lost in the Scripps ranch area, where the fire had taken its toll. The entire neighborhood was wiped out, except for one home, left intact. It was her next-door neighbor. It’s a horrible feeling to see someone you know standing next to the ruins of her home, just next door to where the fire decided to stop. Other friends of our family lost their home in the same neighborhood.

She later spoke to me of the horrors of fleeing, seeing the flames and smoke advance rapidly. She had minutes to save whatever she could and run. Other folks said that they could feel the intense heat of the flames from afar. The pictures I saw of her home’s remains were hard to look at. I could only think of something my father had said during the week, that one spends a lifetime building a home, and it disappears in moments. Within the rubble and ash, one could see the porcelain of a coffee mug, or a picture frame. In the background, the only things recognizable were the naked chimneys, curving away into the distance.

The entire week was bizarre, and tough to handle. San Diego became a ghost town of sorts. The mayor had told citizens to stay home in order to avoid breathing the smoke-filled atmosphere, and especially to leave roads open for firefighters, police, and evacuees. It was eerily quiet. Interstate 5, a stone’s throw from my window, was nearly deserted. I’d driven to work, expecting the school to be open. Nope. Not one car in the parking lot, which was blanketed in ash and soot. We were closed due to air quality, as were most businesses. I drove down to Little Italy. Businesses open, but not a soul outside. Those that were outside had white masks on.

The way people rallied in the face of it was really something to behold. Everyone seemed to go into emergency mode and help out. Qualcomm Stadium became a way station for fire victims and families. Strangers were driving out there and lending their cell phones to victims. The firefighters really had a rough time of it in the beginning, but managed to finally kill the blaze. My neighbor, a firefighter, had told me how he’d gotten his gear together and gone down to his station, only to find that there was no transport to take him out there. The engines at his station had been called out hours earlier. The eerie silence in the city finally made sense: there were no sirens wailing in the city. They were all away, battling the blazes. There was even a shortage of heavy equipment that even the airport crash trucks were sent out to extinguish the flames. There were civilians climbing onto roofs with garden hoses and spraying down hot spots. Qualcomm stadium became an evacuation point for endangered neighborhoods. The entire parking lot was filled within hours. Folks were out in the streets distributing free masks. These are images that I remember well, during that smoke filled week.

In the year and a half or two years since, some progress has been made. Fire victims are rebuilding, or attempting to rebuild. The guy who started the blaze admitted his guilt and as a result, faces some jail time and fines. Surprisingly, folks seem to be pretty forgiving, and when polled in the local paper, some said that a long jail sentence would be too harsh a punishment. Others, certainly, were really angry, despite his admission, and want the stiff penalty. I think overall, myself included, that the citizens of the county are directing their anger towards the city council and the local Dept. of Forestry.

The fire had started just before sundown, had been reported, and a chopper sent out. The department made a decision to call back the chopper as it was about drop water on the fire in its infancy, due to lack of sunlight or night approaching. The DoF stands by its decision, but the masses are pissed off. According to some, that decision gave the fire plenty of time to grow to the size it did.

The DoF stands by its decision, but the masses are pissed off. According to some, that decision gave the fire plenty of time to grow to the size it did.

Just before the fire, the city council had denied funding to keep a fire-fighting helicopter for the County, because it was based out in East County and not in San Diego City. The city also has black eyes from two of its council leaders involved in a scandal, a bad credit rating in the nation, a pension crisis that has us over a billion dollars in the red, and a mayoral race that ended up being decided by the courts. Are they asleep at the wheel, or what? We are a small city with big city problems, as a friend recently told me. And as fire season approaches, people are getting nervous. I hope that the city council grows up and starts taking care of business. We’re losing faith here, you know?

Posted by sfilippone at June 16, 2005 04:27 PM


Great retrospective of those terrible few days Sal. As bad as things were, I still like to read about other peoples experiences during that week and I like to share mine as well. My wife and I were living in Santee when the fire broke out and I put together a little website about that week from my perspective...

I grew up in Baltimore (Maryland) and we just didn't have things like that. A house fire or maybe a small brush fire but never anything like what happened here.

The whole experience was interesting, intense and scary all at the same time. I don't think I could ever forget the way the town of Santee, especially the folks in my immediate neighborhood, came together to help each other protect their houses and if needed, to pack up their belongings.

One event that really stands out to me was a man with his truck that had a large tank filled with water on the back. I was out in the neighborhood taking pictures and surveying the damage when I came to a street that ended at a large field. The field was burning and the flames were headed towards the houses. There were no firetrucks in site and all the people had to defend themselves and their homes with were a few garden hoses and this man with his water truck. There was a deputy from the Santee sheriff's department there but he was telling people they needed to leave, immediately.

The man with the water truck was trying to get his truck into the field so they could put out the flames that were headed towards the homes but the deputy wouldn't allow him to pass. And there was a gate at the end of the road that was also preventing him from driving out into the filed.

Someone from one of the houses came out with bolt-cutters to cut the lock from the gate so the man and his truck could gain access to the field and help protect the houses. The deputy wasn't going ot allow the lock to be cut and still wanted everyone to leave "before it's too late." After a short arguement the lock was cut and the truck drove out into the field.

Within a few minutes a firetruck came down the street and joined the man with his water truck in the field. In the end no homes were lost on that street, no one had to flee the flames and the deputy retreated to some other street.

I completely understand that the deputy was trying to do his job and to protect the people from the fire but I believe if those people would have left and the lock never got cut at least 1 of those homes would have been burned, perhaps the whole street.

To read more from my perspective and see some photos and video go to my site...

Posted by: Chip Adams at April 19, 2005 03:52 AM

Hi Cousin,

It's amazing what you find on the web. Just read you article about my dad. You are a very talented writer and brought many memories pouring back. Makes me long for a family gathering. Wouldn't be like the old days, when on Sundays we gathered in the basement kitchen at my grandparents. Played football with an old red tennis shoe. And when it was time to do the dishes..JoMarie and Lori used to hide in the upstairs apartment.

Posted by: Cheryl (Filippone) Smith at August 5, 2005 02:08 PM


I have to agree with my Aunt Cheryl, you are a very talented writer. I remember getting to ride in the fire truck with my grandpa when I was little too. He was a very special man that I miss everyday.

Posted by: Linsey Simpson at August 15, 2005 02:30 PM

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