Further east of Alpine Boulevard, Ace points toward the fence separating the street and the freeway embankment. "Now, see the rust on the chain link here? That's because this was all burning through here. The fire started about a mile and a half east of here in the center divide. It jumped on the other side of the freeway, it burned across that mountain up ahead, and it jumped across the freeway right down here, and jumped into Alpine. Where that fence was rusted was one of the areas that burned across the freeway."
A half-mile west of where Alpine Boulevard ends at East Willows Road, Ace turns right onto Farlin Road. A white-lettered green sign on an eight-foot metal pole indicates that this is a county-maintained road. On the left, 50 yards up the hill, stands a small stucco house surrounded by blackened earth and scorched manzanita bushes. "This house was saved," Ace says, "and every one from here on out was gone. This was the first neighborhood hit."
The morning of January 3, 2001, was a tough one for Farlin Road. Five of the 15 homes lost in the Viejas fire were on the short road off Alpine Boulevard. A number of factors made it ground zero. Dry winds were blowing from the desert at 45 miles per hour with gusts as high as 80. "I've been up here for 19 years, and I don't ever remember the wind blowing that hard," says Odiorne. Two years of below-average rainfall had resulted in fuel moisture content -- the amount of water in the grass on the hillsides -- of less than 10 percent. "You like to see it up around 30 to 40 percent," Ace explains. And most unluckily for Farlin Road, a driver on I-8 chucked a cigarette into the center divide, directly upwind of the neighborhood. In less than an hour, the winds had blown the fire across the eastbound lanes of the freeway, up an embankment, across Alpine Boulevard, and into the Farlin Road neighborhood.
"When the fuel is so dry," Ace explains, "the fire doesn't have to reach it for it to start to burn. The radiant heat ahead of the fire ignites it. We had fires spotting out ahead of this one by a half mile. The grass was just bursting into flame. So it's very hard to chase after that kind of fire and catch it with a fire hose. You just can't do it."
That same radiant heat can cause houses to burn, even houses with fireproof roofs and no exposed wood. "The radiant heat is so high," Ace says, "that even through double-pane windows it will ignite the wall coverings and draperies inside the house. Burning vegetation can actually reach 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. So you can have the contents of homes spontaneously combust, because wood burns at about 560 degrees."
When firefighters arrive at a scene like Farlin Road, January 3, they perform a kind of fire triage. "They'll look at the structure," Ace explains, "and make a decision whether they can protect that structure or not. If the homeowner hasn't done any clearing of brush around his house, if he has a shake cedar roof with trees overhanging it, or if he has a house with a lot of exposed wood, they'll move on. Let her burn. If you get to another house that has 100 feet of clear space, it's got a tile roof, stucco exterior, double-pane windows -- they're going to make a stand there."
Further east, where Alpine Boulevard meets East Willows Road, the paved road ends, and a dirt road continues on. It's unmarked except for a spray-painted plywood sign reading "Fritz" leaning against an open chain-link gate. "Fritz must be the name of a guy who lives back here," Ace says, "but what's the address here? What's the street name? The dispatchers don't say, 'Go to Fritz's house.' "
Ace adds, "If the house is not clearly visible from the street of its address, then the owner is required to put up a post with a street name and street address numbers on it. That's by fire ordinance, so it has all the weight of law. Still, it doesn't always happen."
Another Alpine Fire Protection District's ordinance dictates that a private road serving four or more parcels shall be named and marked with street signs. Told that she and her neighbors are in violation of both ordinances, Betty Odiorne doesn't seem alarmed. "Nobody's ever done anything about it. What are they going to do, cite us all? No, nobody has ever said anything to us. Unless someone is going to write me a ticket, I really don't care. If the fire marshal wants to come out and explain it to me, that's fine. I'll understand. Other than that..." she shrugs her shoulders.