Living with Climate Change in California, Part 3: San Diego’s Witch Creek Fire

by Jenny Binstock

December 22, 2009

The Southern California wildfires of October 2007 were some of the most devastating fires the state has ever seen. The fires burned over 500,000 acres from Santa Barbara County to the U.S.-Mexico border. Nine people died, eighty five(including fire fighters) were injured, and over 800,000 people were forced to flee their homes in what has been labeled as the largest evacuation in Californias history to date (larger than Hurricane Katrina)..

The Witch Creek Fire, the largest fire of them all that October, tore through 197,990 acres of northern San Diego County. Over a thousand homes were destroyed with hundreds more damaged, and two people lost their lives. Of the forty one people injured in the Witch Creek Fire, thirty nine of them were fire fighters faced with the task of fighting the blazes head-on.

The increasingly hot and dry conditions we could see year after year as a result of climate change could bring more severe fires that will be even more threatening to people and property, and a massive drain of resources on our local, state and federal government. Fires like the Witch Creek Fire could become common for Southern Californians, and now is our opportunity to demand real leadership on climate change to protect our communities.

A Closer Look

Eric Johnson, an information security specialist in the electronics industry, moved to Rancho Bernardo, a community about 20 miles northeast of downtown San Diego, in November of 2005. His wife (then girlfriend) Megan, who works in media and marketing, moved in with him in spring of 2006. Eric and Megans apartment in Rancho Bernardo was their first home together.

The Johnsons had been camping a few hours north up the coast in Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo when the Witch Creek Fire started. They decided to stop for coffee before their long trek back home when they saw a headline in the Los Angeles Times about the fires. They were overwhelmed with concern for the safety of their home, and particularly for their African Grey Parrot, Ivy, who they had left there.

The couple rushed back to San Diego, and Eric decided to risk the journey to Rancho Bernardo to see if he could rescue Ivy. Many roads were blocked off, and Eric parked his motorcycle on a cul-du-sac overlooking their home and ran down a smoldering hill to their still-standing apartment complex. Fortunately, Ivy was safe, but Eric had little time to sneak her into his pocket before leaving again, as the fires were still not contained.

Eric describes the first time they were permitted to return to their apartment as foreign. Tragically, several buildings in Eric and Megans apartment complex burned down in the fires. While the Johnsons building did not burn down, they lost many belongings and their apartment was damaged so badly that it was declared uninhabitable.

The place was a wreck, everything was caked in soot, Eric recalls. We had to be escorted in by a police officer and had 10 minutes to get what we needed and then had to leave. We weren’t allowed to go back for good for another two days.

Two years later, Eric, Megan and Ivy have rebuilt their lives and have settled in nearby Cardiff-by-the-Sea, part of North County San Diegos coastal community. They are happy and resilient people, and while they have moved on, it is clearly an experience that they will carry with them the rest of their lives, and as non-natives to San Diego, they have learned many lessons for coping with future fire seasons. Most of all, Eric and Megan understand that they were lucky, as many in their situation have not been. In a future ravaged by climate change, not as many will be as lucky as the Johnsons and more people and property will be put at risk year after year.

The future of Southern California is not to be gambled with – we need strong action for the climate, and the solutions that our leaders in Copenhagen put on the table last week are not enough to protect us from the worst impacts of climate change here at home. In the coming year, Californians need to speak up now more than ever for the real solutions to the climate crisis, otherwise were leaving our future up to chance.

We Need Your Voice. Join Us!

Want to learn more about tax-deductible giving, donating stock and estate planning?

Visit Greenpeace Fund, a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) charitable entity created to increase public awareness and understanding of environmental issues through research, the media and educational programs.