In the fall of 1970, California caught fire.
Between September 25 and October 3 that year, the U. S. Forest Service recorded 16 fires that consumed over 528,000 acres statewide. From Humboldt County in the north to the Mexican border, high winds and record low humidity set the stage for some of the worst fires ever reported in a state known for big fires.
In the chaparral-covered hills east of San Diego, Saturday, September 26, dawned a burnt orange. At 6:15 that morning, the first day of deer-hunting season, two hunters reported a fire to two Forest Service men at the Kitchen Creek hunter’s station. Kitchen Creek runs south out of the Laguna Mountains just east of Pine Valley. In an area now familiar to San Diegans from television footage of illegal aliens trudging along dirt roads through manzanita and dust-colored boulders, Santa Ana winds fanned the incipient flames.
By September 29, what became known as the Laguna-Kitchen Creek Fire had burned 185,000 acres. Its borders stretched west to El Cajon, Spring Valley, and Lemon Grove, and south past the Sweetwater Reservoir almost to Chula Vista. At the fire’s height, it burned 4000 acres per hour and moved 32 miles in 30 hours.
I remember the Laguna Fire. I was eight years old. We lived in a three-bedroom wood-frame house on Valley View Trail in Pine Valley. My father was the chief of the Pine Valley Volunteer Fire Department. Every Thursday evening at 7:00, the big siren in the middle of town would wail, and men from around the valley would pour into the tiny firehouse for the department’s weekly meeting. Other evenings or early in the morning or late afternoons, the siren would call the men to an emergency. Sometimes a house on fire. More often than not, a wreck on the highway.
When I was a kid, Highway 80 stretched like a long, thin ribbon, two measly lanes, from San Diego up over the mountains, down into the desert, and onto the Arizona border. Cattle trucks and semis laden with produce from the Imperial Valley labored up the steep serpentine grades. Cars, impatient to get around the slow-moving behemoths, passed where they shouldn’t. I remember my father coming home from head-on collisions, his face set. He never talked about the crashes. And if we were out driving in another part of the county and had to slow down to get around emergency crews working at a wreck, my dad always told us to look the other way.
In the fall, when the winds blew hard out of the east, we worried about brush fires. We watched other fires on the TV news, tiny black firemen shapes outlined against great walls of orange flame. I remember waking up on that Saturday in September 1970 in the room I shared with my sister. White plaster walls and white-and-blue flowered curtains at the window. Already the light coming through the window stained the walls and curtains a sickly yellow. My nostrils ached with a smell like burnt, crushed herbs.
The phone rang a lot that morning. My mom spoke in the urgent yet businesslike tone she got when important things happened. My dad left the house before breakfast to drive the short mile and a half up to Sunrise Highway and to look at the fire. When he got back, my mom called the firemen and told them to stand by in case the fire came into the valley.
As the morning progressed, the sky got darker. Black and orange and red clouds obscured the sun. Mom drove my little brother and me to the firehouse so she could answer the phone there while Dad and the other firemen readied their trucks and equipment. Green Forest Service trucks and fire engines from different areas around San Diego rumbled up the highway and gathered at the clubhouse a block down the street from the fire station. Inside the firehouse, the smell of brewing coffee mingled with the nose-stinging aroma of institutional pine cleaner. Sitting at a desk with the telephone receiver pressed against her ear, my mom called the firemen’s wives and told them we might have to evacuate. She set a phone chain in motion to alert all the valley’s residents. “Listen for the siren,” she said over and over again. “When the siren sounds, it’s time to leave the valley.”
Pausing between calls to light a cigarette, my mom told me, “Go out back and watch Sunrise Highway. When you see the fire come over the hill, tell me right away.”
My little brother and I ran out into the red-tinged gloom. The wind tore at our hair. Casting occasional glances across the valley toward the Lagunas, we swung on the metal rail that ran beside the firehouse. At one point, we ran to the front of the firehouse to see what my dad was doing. When we came back, yellow tongues of flame burned halfway down the mountain. My heart raced. I ran into the firehouse. “Mom,” I panted, “the fire’s come over the hill.”
My mom ran outside to see for herself. The firemen followed us. A few minutes later, the siren wailed. We drove back to the house, gathered some clothes, the gray metal box where my mom kept all our important papers, and a huge crate filled with family photos. While my dad stayed in the valley fighting the fire, we spent the next two days at my grandma’s house in Bay Park. We watched our fire on the TV. On Sunday, the sky grew dark with smoke, and ash fell like snow all around my grandma’s house.
Tuesday, we drove back to Pine Valley. The entire east side of the valley, an area sparsely populated and composed mostly of the valley’s dump, looked as if it had been firebombed. Bare skeletons of trees rose out of black earth. The meadow, a grassy plain in the middle of the valley, had burned too. Only three houses had been lost. Ours was not one of them.