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Firestorm 2007

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Surviving and Thriving in the Worst of Times

IN THE THE LAST weeks of October, white ash swirled like wild confetti through San Diego County, and the glow of the moon was muted by orange-tinted smoke. It was a daily reminder of the wildfires that would claim more than 1,500 homes—and a signal that everyone had to be prepared to evacuate.

AFTER LOSING their Scripps Ranch residence in the Cedar fire four years earlier, Phil and Catherine Blair wanted to believe they were exempt from another tragedy. The couple bought a home in Del Mar, a few blocks from the ocean. Fire, they reasoned, wouldn’t travel all the way to the water.

When Catherine heard sirens and a mandatory evacuation order blaring from a megaphone, it mentally transported her to the past. She grabbed her purse and keys. Just before she got in her car, she recalled how a neighbor saved her best china by placing it in a backyard pool. Catherine had lost her grandmother’s wedding silver in the Cedar fire, and to ease her sadness, she had purchased another set from an antique store.

“Before I ran out the door, I threw it in the pool,” she says. “My mind wasn’t functioning on all cylinders. I was crushed at the thought of doing this again. I thought: Surely the fires won’t come this way.”

The Blairs spent the night downtown, in the offices Phil shares with Mel Katz, his neighbor and business partner of 30 years.

“Our wives are best friends, and we’re best friends,” says Phil. “Mel and I own franchises of Manpower staffing. We thought about getting a hotel, but they were all taken, so it was urban camping. The conversation that night was: ‘We’ve done it before; we’ll do it again.’ We’ll find another house. I can think of 10 things much worse.”

The Blairs made themselves comfortable in the Manpower offices and awaited their fate.

“If worrying or pining helps you clarify something, then it’s worthwhile,” Phil says in his steady baritone. “But if there is nothing you can do, you have to just let go. What you find is that other things are more important—like the fact we are healthy and our dear friends weren’t hurt in the fire.”

When the Cedar fire blazed through Southern California in 2003, the couple had evacuated to the Embassy Suites. A friend had called to tell them their Scripps Ranch home was destroyed.

“You want to know, one way or the other,” Phil says. “Not knowing is worse. You want to get the waiting over with.”

Friends who learned of that loss organized a “sifting party”—a gathering in which guests sift through the ashes of a home and bring any pictures they might have to help preserve its memory. Only the contents of the dishwasher were salvageable.

“It was the most emotionally moving day of my life,” says Catherine. “In a way, it was a funeral for the house. We came out stronger as a family, with a deeper appreciation for our friends.”

Everyone who had participated in the sifting party was invited to the Blairs’ housewarming soirée after they purchased their Del Mar home. To their great relief, the Blairs learned it was untouched by this October’s fires.

BARBARA WARDEN was less fortunate. She and her husband, Dick, had lived in their Rancho Bernardo Trails home for 26 years. When she saw black smoke in the distance turn orange, she woke her husband and told him they had to leave. About an hour later, at 3:30 a.m., the area was evacuated, minutes before it became a roaring wall of fire.

“I had an instinct I wouldn’t be back,” says Warden, president of the Downtown San Diego Partnership and a former San Diego councilwoman.

“We went to our younger son’s home on the other side of Lake Hodges. The next morning, they evacuated us. My older son lives in Carmel Mountain Ranch. Both of our sons are okay, and my brother in Ramona is okay, which is a true miracle.”

But the Warden home was destroyed—along with 60 others in the neighborhood.

In the days that followed, Warden began to realize everything—everything—needed to be replaced. Shoes and underwear, furniture and dishes.

“You don’t know where to start,” she says.

“I had to call the utilities and get them turned off. The cable person said, ‘Are you sure you don’t want your Internet?” I said, ‘There is no house!’ They didn’t know what to do; they had to get a manager.”

One item escaped the ravaging blaze that destroyed the Warden home: a sundial inscribed “Grow old along with me. The best is yet to be.”

“My husband has a saying, ‘Let go and let God,’ ” Warden says, as she ponders the future. “The first thing we will do is scalp the property. Then we’ll have a party in the circular driveway. We’ll have wine and ask our friends to bring photos.

“I think all of San Diego reached out to one another. We showed our best side in the worst of times.”
—MARCIA MANNA

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