CARLSBAD — A few days ago, in this beautiful coastal city that my family and I have called home for nine years, I met with someone from the California Water Alliance. Founded by farmers and other agricultural interests in Central California, where I was born and raised, the organization aims to solve what it calls the “water emergency” in the Golden State.
First, it has to find a way to make people in the urban areas – including cities such as Carlsbad and most of San Diego County – care about the drought that has ravaged agriculture in the state. When you live near an ocean, all you see is water. It must be hard for my fellow urban dwellers to understand the dangers of building homes on thousands of acres of dry brush that doubles as kindling.
I think we all understand a little better now.
This week’s outbreak of at least nine devastating brush fires north and east of San Diego scorched nearly 10,000 acres, threatened hundreds of homes, destroyed numerous structures and caused the closure of dozens of schools. The fires also prompted the evacuation of thousands of people, including my family.
I was about 20 miles away from home, dropping my kids off at school in a nearby city, when my wife called. She was getting frantic text messages from friends saying that our neighborhood park – the one about a quarter-mile from our home where I play catch with my son – was on fire. And the flames were spreading fast. I rushed home, listening to the radio for updates. In the distance, I saw a huge plume of black smoke coming from the general direction of my neighborhood.
When I arrived at our house, the evacuation order was already in place, and I had about an hour to pack up the essentials. There are things you need for the next few days as well as the keepsakes that are dear to the family. You do it all as fast as you can, dreading that non-negotiable knock at the door when a sheriff’s deputy orders you to get out.
These moments put things in perspective. You grab documents, family photos, your kids’ favorite toys, computers, some clothes for everyone, your daughter’s journal.
That’s about it. When you’re forced to flee your home, once your loved ones are safe, what’s remarkable is how much you don’t take with you because you don’t care what happens to it. Why do we spend our lives accumulating so much useless stuff?
Then, giving in to professional instincts, I defied my wife’s pleading to leave the neighborhood and instead drove closer to the fire. I grabbed my notebook, and I got within 50 yards of the flames. The air was thick with white ash and toxic black smoke that smelled like nicotine. I saw what looked like an all-out war against a crafty and cruel enemy, with helicopters and airplanes attacking the fire as if it were an invading army.
Neighbors used garden hoses to water down their roofs and backyards. Others jumped out of their cars and surveyed the fire line with binoculars or shot video to track the fire’s progress.
Eventually, the police arrived to start directing traffic and get the spectators out of the way. This was my cue to get started toward my parents’ home 20 minutes away. My wife, who was at work when the fire broke out, would pick up the kids at their school and join us later.
We would spend an anxious night not knowing if we had a home to go back to.
Carlsbad officials said later at a news conference that firefighters were able to save hundreds of homes. Mine was one of them.
Journalism is about gathering information as a dispassionate observer. But there was no way I could do that when staring in the face of a disaster that threatened my family’s home.
Opinion journalism allows for passion. Some of the best I’ve seen came from writers who were emotionally invested in their topics – i.e., columns filed from Boston after last year’s marathon bombing, or from New Orleans in days after Hurricane Katrina.
I was emotionally invested in this story, as were all my neighbors.
A couple of them more than others. Two of our neighbors are firefighters, and I thought how heart-wrenching it must be to report to work to save not just other people’s homes but also your own.
Firefighters are real heroes. I’m getting ready to move my family back into our house. They’re getting ready to battle the next blaze.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for U-T San Diego. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.