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    Posted May 16, 2014 by
    San Diego, California
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    California wildfires

    Evacuating San Marcos-Small Miracles Amidst the Inferno


    On Wednesday, May 14th, I was driving through north county San Diego, when I heard that the Cal State San Marcos campus was being evacuated due to a huge fire in San Marcos, one of at least 6 that day that were razing my hometown. I quickly called my best friend Nancy, whose apartment is located  next to the campus, and told her that yet another fire was raging in San Diego, and this one was in her neighborhood. She began crying, frantic because she was stuck on the other side of Oceanside and portions of highways 5 and 78, leading east into San Marcos were closed. Roads that were not closed completely were clogged with slowed/stopped vehicles, stuck trying to escape the smoke, or just slowing their vehicles to watch the inferno. I live in Encinitas (coastal north county) and knew our "back way" to my friend's place, so I grabbed a box and trash bags and began driving towards her apartment.


    I called my best friend as I was en route, only to find her panic and fear had heightened. "All my pictures! The ones of me and my Dad! Everything I own is in there!", she cried. As a Red Cross volunteer, I have seen many people in the face of emergencies. The chaos and sense of loss is so overwhelming...And it is never the expensive paintings, the valuables, that people grieve losing...it's the family photos. Having also lost my Dad too soon, I could not let my friend experience such a profound loss again. I had to at least try to get her photo albums. I wound around Lake San Marcos, overtaken by the blaring sirens, helicopters, smoke, insane heat (it was 105 degrees, but felt hotter with the blasting Santa Ana winds).


    As I turned onto Craven in San Marcos, up Discovery Hill towards the Cal State San Marcos campus, I was met with a towering wall of flames on the hill next to the college. The heat grew more intense. I watched my car thermometer raise by ten degrees in just a few minutes. I watched cars pass me, filled with suitcases, boxes, pets. My heart ached for these families, leaving with their lives in a few boxes. As I pulled into Nancy's parking lot, I watched the exodus of evacuees, packing their vehicles with fear in their eyes, as the fire raged nearby, totally out of control, and moving towards us.


    I ran towards my friend's apartment. Her second story unit was only accessible via her balcony, since I did not have a key. After trying unsuccessfully to pull my body from the neighbor's lower balcony up towards her unit, I realized it was too high. Nancy cried into my phone, "Just leave! Forget it. It's just stuff, Liz!" But I could not leave without at least her family photos. I ran around the apartment complex, asking the few tenants still evacuating if anyone had a ladder. No one did, and I became deflated at the thought that I was so close and couldn't help. Finally, a young man yelled from a balcony, "I don't, but I can climb up. I'm a marine!" I almost jumped for joy right there. "Thank you! Let's go!", I said.


    After fully vetting me to ensure I was not a looter (as any awesome Marine will do), Omar the hero climbed nimbly onto the top of the wooden first story balcony, lept into the air, hung from a rung of the 2nd story balcony, and began climbing up, up, up each rung like a ninja. I stood there in awe. "No way! Wohoo!", I screamed. I was so happy I could not contain myself. Even after the strenuous climb in smoky conditions, Omar said politely, "If you need me to climb back up later to lock her front door, let me know." I was stunned. People lose faith in humanity often. But I've found in my Red Cross work that random (and awesome) acts of kindness abound in emergencies. It takes my breath away.


    I packed my friend's precious items and stuffed them into my car. Neighbors, worried for their own safety, took time to help me carry boxes, without a thought. More miracles.


    After filling my car to the rim with photos albums, year books, clothes and trophies, I stood in awe and watched the hill above me burn. It was surreal. I watched the fire engulf a home above me, then leap across a canyon like a lightning bolt, igniting a fire on another side of the hill. I watched plane after plane swoop down and drop clouds of red fire retardant onto the inferno. Nothing seemed to slow the blaze. It was truly humbling to watch. I could not help but think of the birds, rabbits, wildlife, trees that were being decimated on what was once a verdant hillside in beautiful San Diego. I finally got into my car and drove away. As I passed the college, I watched stunned students trudging down the street with suitcases, pillows, framed pictures, everything they could carry...all against the backdrop of an orange wall of flames just above them on the hillside. A lump filled my throat. It was such a sad and surreal scene.


    This week has been tough on everyone here in San Diego. It is so hard to watch my hometown in flames, see landscapes I have looked upon with awe at their beauty now reduced to blackened moonscapes...to know that so many families have lost so much and are displaced and scared. My solace is in the seemingly small miracles I have witnessed, that give me so much pride for my hometown, and hope that we will all be OK.

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