As the infamous Santa Ana winds began whipping through Ramona in San Diego's backcountry, Craig Post knew he needed to move fast. When the sheriff's vehicle appeared in his driveway ordering him to leave, he grabbed his wife, Sandra, and their dog. The couple drove down the winding mountain road to Rancho Bernardo, a community 20 miles north of downtown San Diego where friend Rita Rohling had opened her home to his family.
That was Sunday afternoon; at 4 a.m. Monday, Mrs. Rohling's phone rang with mandatory evacuation orders. As the sun began to come up in San Diego, the two families drove through black smoke and falling debris, using side streets to skirt closed portions of Interstate 15, until they could get on the freeway and flee to the home of one of Rohling's relatives near downtown San Diego.
The Posts and Rohling joined some 300,000 Californians who have had to evacuate their homes – and sometimes reevacuate from newly found shelter – in the face of more than a dozen wildfires that have burned more than 250,000 acres in recent days. Thousands of displaced homeowners took refuge in San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium. Others fled to the Del Mar Fairgrounds on the coast. Hotels are at 100 percent occupancy. So far, the evacuation has proceeded relatively smoothly, with only one reported fatality.
"Everyone is really calm here," said Kelly Hickman of Rancho Bernardo contacted by cellphone at the football stadium, where more than 4,000 people have taken refuge. "The Salvation Army is feeding people and it's really warm out, so we're all pretty confident we'll be able to go home soon."
The National Guard is on hand at Qualcomm for safety protection. People not affected by the fires have already donated food, money, toys, and blankets. Volunteers have been pouring into the stadium to help while Boy Scouts have erected tents in the parking lot.
Many fire victims who had to flee their homes in communities such as Scripps Ranch and Valley Center in North San Diego County lost property in the 2003 Cedar fire, which until now was the worst wildfire on record in California, burning 273,000 acres and killing 15 people. This week's Witch fire, which forced the Posts to flee, now stands as the sixth-worst such conflagration and at press time was still not contained.
San Diego officials have taken steps recently to prepare for the worst, but the situation quickly flamed out of control on Monday.
"There's no stopping this fire, so the best we can do is get out of the way," said county Supervisor Dianne Jacob. "We've done what we could in anticipation of this happening. San Diego County has spent $120 million to upgrade our community-notification systems and vegetation management."
Many residents, including Rohling and the Posts, were ordered to leave their homes by an automated telephone service, known as "Reverse 911." The combination database and mapping system can make emergency calls to hundreds or thousands of call recipients at once.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the stadium Monday night offering moral support to the fire victims. "We are stretched to the limit when it comes to resources," he said at a press conference earlier. "We need as much help as possible."
The unpredictable, fast-moving flames are threatening the coastal town of Del Mar and the community of Rancho Santa Fe, where the median price for a single- family home is $2.5 million, as well as the city of Chula Vista near the border with Mexico.
Late Monday night, Rhonda Delgadillo watched the fire coverage on television at the home of a friend in an unaffected area of San Diego. Ms. Delgadillo had rented a home on five acres in Dulzura, 25 miles east of San Diego and had fled earlier in the day with her teenage son, pets, and the clothes on her back.
"I'm pretty sure the house is gone and I've lost everything," she said. "The sheriff's [department] did a great job of telling us to evacuate, but literally we had five minutes. It's fire season, and I knew there was a possibility of fire. But really, I didn't expect to lose it all."