Brent and Charlotte Mitchell. "I was in the house talking on the phone, and I saw him coming with his spotlight, so I hung up real fast and hid under the workbench."
Fire consumed John Heglin's Santee home in 1986. "I lost everything," he recalls, "and I was homeless for quite some time. But the worst thing was not losing everything but having to deal with the insurance companies and lawyers for the next five years after."
John Heglin and Arlene Smith. "My sister Marilyn was screaming at me to get out now because 'You are going to die if you stay.'"
Those memories were fresh in Heglin's mind as the Cedar Creek fire approached his house, next door to Menghini Winery in the Farmer Road area north of Julian. Though a steady stream of cars carrying evacuating neighbors bounced down the gravel road in front of his house, Heglin decided to stay and fight the fire.
At noon, five days after the fire burned through his neighborhood, Heglin sits at his second-floor dining room table with his partner, Arlene Smith, who stuck out the fire with him. Despite sleeping until 11:30, they sound and look exhausted. "We didn't sleep much for about three days," says Heglin, a robust man in his 40s, wearing boots, jeans, and a tattered tan vest over a T-shirt. His outfit -- along with his long blond hair, full beard, and muscular stature -- lend him the air of a mountain man.
Cedar fire, Julian. "Some firemen did drive by. John asked them, 'Will you come back and help us?' They said, 'Don't count on a truck being there.'"
"It started on Sunday [October 26]," Heglin continues, "with the fire burning the other way. We don't get TV reception, but we could hear the audio for Channel 8, so we got an idea of what was going on. And we could see smoke up above our valley here." He points westward toward a blackened hillock crowned with a stand of scorched trees, some of them still smoking.
As he and Smith, who have owned their mountain house on ten acres for two years, stood watching the smoke cloud rising to the west that Sunday, their electrical power cut out, came back on, then cut out again, not to resume for five days. "That means no water," says Smith, a small, soft-spoken woman with long black hair, "because you can't pump water from the well without electricity. We could cook because we have a gas stove, but we couldn't take a hot shower for five days..."
"And pretty dirty days," Heglin adds, "particularly after the smoke started coming this way."
A few miles to the west, in the town of Wynola, artists Brent and Charlotte Mitchell were also watching the fire's progress. Their art studio/home sits on 25 acres two lots south of where firefighter Steven Rucker and his crew were overcome. The oak- and manzanita-covered parcel sits perched above a deep canyon to the west. Along with the house, the couple had three small cabins and one Los Angeles streetcar from the early 1900s in which they stored sheet glass and metal used in their glass sculptures. Sunday and Monday, as the fire sprinted westward into Poway, Scripps Ranch, and beyond, the Mitchells say it also crawled eastward toward the mountains. From a tree house he built in a live oak on the rim of the canyon, Brent, a powerfully built man with dark curly hair, says, "I could see it on the hills coming this way especially at night when you could see the flames. During the day you couldn't see the flames, but you could see all the smoke."
Though they could see the fire and smoke off to the southwest, Charlotte, a tall woman with fine, graceful features and long brown hair turning gray, says the scene around Wynola was eerie and quiet. "It was a beautiful blue sky here and very still weather. Normally, when fires are around here, the firefighters are on them right away, and we see them. But we didn't see them, we didn't see any of the airplanes, we didn't hear anything. It was like being tied to a railroad track, and the train is slowly coming, and there is no one stopping it. But then [on Tuesday] the wind shifted, and it was really, really smoky here, and I knew that I better get the animals out."
"Even on Tuesday," Brent says, "I wasn't worried; it just got really dark and smoky, so she decided to leave in the camper, which she had been packing with artwork and valuables. She took the four dogs, and she was going to go down Banner Grade on the other side of Julian. But they had already closed the road about halfway between here and Julian. The sheriff stopped her there and turned her around. She honked her horn, and I knew that it was her. I didn't know where she was going, but I knew she wasn't going to go down Banner Grade. As a matter of fact, when she got down into Santa Ysabel, she had to make a right-hand turn, and they told her to go out to Borrego Springs."
Brent had already decided, "I wasn't going to leave my property."
John Heglin had made the same decision. "I was going to be here no matter what," he says. Arlene Smith wasn't as sure. While she was deciding whether to stay with Heglin, she packed their two cars and motor home full of valuables and pets and parked them next door in the Menghini Winery parking lot. Though their power was out, the phone worked. "And we had people calling us constantly," she says. "The phone was ringing off the hook. I am trying to pack stuff into a car, and friends keep calling to ask me if I was okay. My sister Marilyn was screaming at me to get out now because 'You are going to die if you stay.' And that just did not help.
"I kept changing my mind," Smith says, "and thinking, 'Maybe I am being crazy; maybe I should leave.' "
Through Tuesday the wind out of the west brought ever-thickening smoke and occasional burning embers. That afternoon, a car full of evacuees came down the road and stopped in front of Heglin and Smith's house. "They said, 'Get into the car and follow us, we are all going to Temecula,' " Smith recalls. At that moment she made up her mind. "I said, 'I can't leave John.' "
Though they couldn't pump water from their well, they had 10,000 gallons of water in a reserve tank to use for fire abatement. From this, they filled buckets of water in which to wet towels to use to beat out flare-ups. Heglin also mowed down his five-acre wheat field, one hundred or so yards from the house. Other areas of the house were already cleared and mowed. "The fire department comes and says, 'You need to keep the brush down and a certain distance from the house,' and I believe them, I always have. And so we have kept a perimeter, a defensible perimeter around the house."
The Mitchells had not kept a defensible perimeter around their house. Manzanitas, very flammable due to high oil content, grow right up against the house, which has board-and-batten siding, exposed wood rafters, and wooden eaves. Tinder-dry oak trees stand nearby. Tall dry grass stood in a pasture behind the house. But even after his wife evacuated, Brent wasn't worried. "I had heard that they were going to make a stand on Highway 78, and we're on the other side of 78 from where the fire was burning."
Though Brent wasn't worried, a close friend of the Mitchells, who happens to be a former 911 operator, was worried, and she decided to do something about it. "She was so worried about it," Brent says, "that she called the sheriff on Tuesday night to come out and check on me, and I thought he was going to arrest me."
"She wanted him to arrest you," Charlotte adds.
"I was in the house talking on the phone," Brent continues, "and I saw him coming with his spotlight, so I hung up real fast and hid under the workbench. But the workbench has a glass top, and I figured the light would shine right through it. So I went and hid in the bathroom, and the sheriff came around shining lights through the window, and he actually opened our back door."
But the deputy didn't search any farther. No deputy ever visited Smith and Heglin. "A Border Patrol agent came," Smith recalls, "and asked, 'Are you leaving?' We told him no, and he just wrote it down and continued up the road."
After a few hours of sleep Tuesday night, Brent made some coffee and took a mug of it to the tree house on the canyon rim. At 9:00 Wednesday morning, as he sipped the coffee, he saw the fire jump over Highway 78 southwest of his house. Though he had counted on the highway standing between him and the flames, he still wasn't too worried. "It wasn't very big," he explains. "Most of the flames only seemed to be about three feet tall, and every once in a while, it would hit an oak tree, and then you would get a 20-foot flame, but then it would die back down. It almost looked like it was just going to go out."
It didn't go out. The fire moved northeast up the canyon below the Mitchells' land, picking up speed and intensity as the morning wind grew. "I watched it for three hours," Brent says. "And all of a sudden, the wind changed from coming from the south to coming from the west, and the fire that was way over there, on the far side of the ridge, all of a sudden started coming this way, and it came up between Hubble's residence -- which is next to us -- and the Lises' just beyond. And that is where the fireman died.
"The five firemen from Novato," Brent continues, "had gone down about 100 yards into the canyon where the fire was. Whether they set a backfire or not, I don't know. But when the wind changed, and they saw the flames coming toward them, they all turned around to hightail it back up to the house, which I thought was kind of weird. But I've heard they are trained to go inside the structure and hope the fire roars over them, and then they can come out. Well four of them made it up there into the house but then realized Mr. Rucker wasn't there. Well, in order to get up into the house, you have to climb up three steps, and then there is a patio, and then you go into the door. They found him on the patio."
After the "wall of flames," as Brent remembers it, reached the canyon rim at the Lis property, two parcels north of the Mitchells', it turned south "and started coming this way. And that is when I decided I had to move. Charlotte had taken the camper full of stuff, but we had also packed a car full of artwork and so forth, and I told her that I would drive it someplace safe. So I got into the car and drove it down to the end of our driveway, and there were some fire marshals and three other men who had 'INFORMATION' written on the back of their jackets. I think they were press because one guy had a microphone in another guy's face, and there was a third guy moving around with a camera. Anyway, I said, 'I need help, my place is burning,' and I said, 'Where is the air-tanker support?' and the marshal told me, 'Well, sir, we don't have enough visibility today,' and I looked up, and it was blue skies above us."
Brent drove his car down Orchard Lane and parked it at a neighbor's place where Orchard meets Highway 78. Figuring that fire officials wouldn't let him walk back up Orchard to his place, Brent decided to walk it overland. "So I came up through the woods, back through the fire. By then, the main wall of fire had passed through. But everything was aflame and burning like mad."
Having been gone about an hour, Brent got back to his house and was amazed to find it still standing. The fire had burned around it on both sides. A row of interconnecting manzanitas near the house had all burned except for the one against the house. A plastic pickup truck-bed liner lying in the driveway ten feet from the house was incinerated. A fiberglass stepladder standing next to the house was severely scorched. Though the tree house burned down, and the old streetcar -- with $10,000 worth of sheet glass and art supplies inside of it -- was reduced to a pile of twisted steel and molten glass, all three cabins were unburned, and one blackened spot on the siding was the sum of damage the house endured. "Why this house is still standing," Brent shakes his head in disbelief, "is amazing."
At Heglin and Smith's house, the fire came into view at 3:00 or 4:00 Wednesday morning. Later that morning, "Our neighbor called," Smith says. "She had already evacuated, and she asked us if John could put things over her vents in her house, so that sparks couldn't get into the crawl space and attic."
"So I covered all the vents," Heglin explains, "so that sparks wouldn't get sucked in, and I made sure all the windows were shut for the same reason."
Late Wednesday afternoon, Smith says, "We were putting stuff over the vents, and we were starting to move firewood away from her house when four fire trucks then showed up. We were sitting up there watching the flames come right at us from the northwest."
Heglin adds, "It was a firestorm, like you hear about. We saw tornadoes of flame, and trees were just exploding as the fire came down the valley toward us from the northwest. At that point, there was not much we felt that we could do. We were just in awe; it was amazing to watch the speed and the intensity of that fire just coming at us. The firemen stood and watched; they watched with us. They said, 'We are not going out there; it is 50- to 60-mile-an-hour winds; it is a firestorm. We can't put it out; there is nothing we can do.' But they staged there to protect our neighbor's house, and we came back here for some final preparations."
Late Wednesday afternoon, the hill of tall, dry grass across the road immediately to the north of Smith and Heglin's house was ablaze. "At the same time," Heglin says, "this whole ridge to the west of us was going up, one tree after another exploding, all the dead pines... There were 300-foot flames up there; it was absolutely unbelievable."
"We were standing in the street with the flames all over the place," Smith recalls. "Some firemen did drive by. John asked them, 'Will you come back and help us?'"
And Heglin continues the story, "They said, 'Don't count on a truck being there.' So we were on our own, which was the mindset we had from the beginning anyway."
So with scuba masks over their eyes and particle masks over their mouths and noses, Heglin and Smith walked around their property stomping out little fires started by golf-ball-sized chunks of burning wood blowing over from the nearby ridge. With shovels and rakes, and with the help of a neighbor who brought out his tractor, Smith and Heglin cut a fire line to keep the grassfire north of their road. The move was successful. Except for windblown ember fires, which they quickly stomped out, the fire never crossed onto their property. By 11:00 p.m. Wednesday, the main event was over. "There were little fires burning all over the place," Smith says, "but they were little ones, and they were lying down for the night."
"But they burned all night," Heglin adds.
Brent Mitchell slept Wednesday night in a chair on the porch of one of his cabins. He, too, could see what looked like "hundreds of campfires" burning all night. Thursday brought cool, damp weather and even a bit of drizzly rain, which helped. Still, Brent says, enough fuel remained to have some "significant flare-ups." Some tree stumps where the fire had been hottest still burned. Smoking holes surrounded by piles of white ash showed where trees had burned to the ground, and the roots were still smoldering. Brent spent Thursday and Friday putting out hot spots and wondering how his house survived. "I did the best I could to protect it," he says, "but there are a lot more reasons why it should have gone up than not."