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."
  • 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."
  • Image by Joe Klein
  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

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.' "

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!