As we drove through the San Felipe Valley, Ann and Tom Keenan pointed out a lone house ringed with greenery on the blackened hillside. A small circle, saved. It's one of several hundred homes that the Pines fire didn't touch. "The firefighters told me that if they have enough time they can save every structure," said Ann. "That's assuming people don't have trash all around their property. But some people keep tons of trash and they haven't cleared their brush, so those places are really hard to defend."
The Keenans, who own 700 acres and a one-room stone cabin off San Felipe Road, have acquired new terminology since the second-worst fire in county history burned more than 61,000 acres, including theirs. "Defensible" is one of those terms. "Indefensible" is another, which Ann used as we passed a burned-down building in Ranchita. (Whether it had been a home or another kind of structure was impossible to tell.) Three charred cars were parked alongside it.
Water from the Keenans' property helped save scores of defensible houses during the fire. The firefighters used the Keenans' pond to fight the flames. Helicopters flew back and forth, dipping 500-gallon buckets into it at two-minute intervals. Ann was told by "a guy named John," a navigator out of El Cajon's Gillespie Field, that he and his small crew alone took 200,000 gallons from the pond during the fire and have been back many times since, using the water to douse hot spots. At ten feet deep, the pond usually contains two million gallons, Tom estimates. The depth had dropped to six feet by the time officials finally declared the fire to be contained. That was on August 13, two weeks and two days after a helicopter on another sort of mission had started the blaze in the first place.
My visit was on the last day of September; by then, the area no longer looked disastrous. Tom noted that obliterated highway signs, like one for Teofulio Summit, had been replaced. Ann sounded apologetic when she said, "Since some leaves have fallen, it doesn't look that bad. The hills are less black." But the crisis continues. The techniques of the firefighters, who used bulldozers to create miles of firebreaks 100 to 500 feet wide, disrupted the landscape, and the current fear is a Biblical reverse: not fire next time but floods.
"This is one of the main watersheds in the county," said Ann. "The San Felipe Creek runs through it. And when the rain falls, the water's going to come pouring down from the hills and wreak havoc. When the wind blows, the dirt just swirls, because there's nothing to hold it down. You can just imagine the Dust Bowl."
We reached the ranch's gate at 10:00 in the morning. It was the same hour at which they had arrived seven weeks earlier, as the fire moved toward their property. Their main residence is in La Mesa, and they had heard on the radio that San Felipe Road was about to be closed. "Tom and I called the sheriff," said Ann, "and asked if we could come out. He said we could have one hour. When we got here, we saw 30 bulldozers and hundreds of firefighters. They were trying to keep the fire away from the sheriff's substation next door, where there's a big fuel tank. The fire was slow-moving, but you could see it coming."
They used the hour to bring their RV and tractor to a firebreak zone.
As we drove in, I saw that the substation looked pristine, like the saved house on the hillside. "There was not a bit of damage done to the sheriff's place," said Ann. "Look! Every blade of grass is green. It's like nothing ever happened."
You could say the same about the Keenans' cabin, but not for the rest of the property.
I had been here before, last December, on a birding expedition with the Keenans, who were volunteers for the recently completed San Diego County Bird Atlas Project. Nearly everything looked different on this second visit. Where before the place had resembled an image of old California, with narrow paths leading into groves of ancient trees, blackberries, persimmons, pomegranates, and wild grapes, now huge areas were cleared, as if for a giant parking lot or a development. "We think it looks like Otay Lakes," said Tom, referring to development going on there. "I thanked one of the fire crew for putting in the new roads. He told me, 'Hell, we put in a freeway.' "
Ann said, "All the mystery of the property is gone. It used to be that you really didn't know how the separate pieces hooked up. Now it's just wide open."
We parked beside the cabin, and the Keenans got out. But they wanted me to wait a moment. "We'll have a little walk-around for rattlesnakes," said Ann. "We've seen two big, fat ones since the fire."
"It's interesting about the snakes," said Tom. "The firefighters told us there were a lot of them, even in their camps. They saw them on the road, too. It was unusual, especially since the pavement was so hot."
No rattlers were in evidence, so we walked up the hill toward the pond, following a bulldozer's trail. The road was soft; spots off the trail were even softer. They felt like talcum powder. In some areas there were ten-foot pools of gray-white ash, where giant oaks once stood. Tom said, "People talk about oaks being tough, but I think sycamores are tougher." Some oaks were two-toned: only half-burned. The Keenans had trouble naming another tree that was in the same condition. Lemonadeberry? Laurel sumac? "It's hard to identify trees without their leaves," said Ann, displeased with herself. "In a way, it's like having a brand-new piece of property."
On the ridge above us, the bulldozers' trails looked like ski runs. The driver must have been perpendicular to the ground as he reached the top. "They coursed over the hills," said Ann. "They're cowboys, those bulldozer guys. They're told to do a job and do it."