November 25, 2007
by Angie Brenner
Ah, the tiny La Casa Sol Hotel, colorful yet a bit sad in that it’s on the fringe of a ‘bad’ neighborhood in the Marascal District. The cheery breakfast room looks across the street at green metal warehouse doors filled with graffiti….FUCK OFF, SKINS, SKINS!, PUTAS, and other such obscene comments I can’t decipher. Just the sort of place Paul Theroux would love to hate. Me, too, as a matter of fact. However, the staff is congenial and accommodating.
After many warnings about theft in Quito, this morning I carelessly walked through the Old Town with my small camera slung on my wrist for easy access. The first photo op was a man on the corner of Avenue Guayaquil peeling coconuts. No sooner had I clicked the shutter and dropped my hand to continue walking (rather than opening the backpack and sticking the camera inside), than I felt a slight tug at my wrist. I turned just as a man snapped the camera from its thin strap, and ran.
Stunned, I watched him speed away, a squat male in jeans and navy windbreaker. When he turned up Avenue Galapagos, I felt the anger rise and took up the chase, no easy feat considering Quito’s 9,000 ft elevation. I began to run up the hill and stairs leading into a Mercado and spotted him ducking into the market place. I wanted to catch and pummel him. THAT would be the story I’d tell my friends later. He wasn’t that fast and had I not had the “deer in the headlights” moment, I might have caught up with him. But, he was long gone.
A few women who had watched the event sympathized with my plight, “Bandito,”one of them said, and pretended to beat him up with a pole. As I continued on my way to see the obligatory churches of the old city, I spotted a couple of policeman. THEY should at least know what happened two blocks away. How are tourists going to visit with this threat hovering?
Soon, I was whisked away in a police car with two male officers and one female officer back to the scene of the crime. They didn’t seem to understand that it was faster to walk the two blocks back, so they insisted on driving. They drove around through traffic until finally the woman suggested that we walk the marketplace. She lead us down dreay alleys lined with oily car and machine parts and tools. “This is where they come to sell cameras,” she said.
Wow, wouldn´t that be a great story, I thought, to catch the guy selling my Olympus. Finally, like me, she too decided to give up the hunt. With her Asian features, she looked like a model in the dirt brown, uniform of slacks and bombardier jacket and military style hat, the kind that looks equally dapper perched square on the head or carried under an arm in Top Gun fashion. She seemed relieved when I declined to “go to the station” to make an official report.
It occurred to me later, under the shadows of spires, bell towers, and church domes, while passing shop after shop selling religious paraphernalia of crosses, Jesus pictures, and every possible version of Mary, that Catholicism can be very cloying. And, if everyone is so religious, why is crime an epidemic? Is it the devastating poverty? Or, like the US, perhaps drugs play a factor?
But on my first day, still disoriented from a long journey, I wonder, How many Hail Marys for my camera?
November 8, 2007
By Angie Brenner
November 8, 2007
Marguerite Eliasson stretches her long legs out on the wicker table over looking a yard of cool green grass. Beyond the veranda of the small one bedroom house are two large corrals. “That’s Turkoman,” she says and looks out at the black horse in the corral on the left. “He’s a sweetheart, over twenty years old and still one of the best breeding stallions we have.” Beemer, Marguerite’s square-jawed rotwieller tries to heft his hundred and ten pound body into my lap and lick my face. “He does that when he’s stressed,” says Marguerite. I push him down gently and keep a calm demeanor; the last thing I need is a nervous, unpredictable rottie in my face. “The stallion that belongs in this corral lost fifty pounds while he was confined to a barn stall.” She points to another expansive, empty arena with part of the fencing blown over from the winds. “Once we put him out in an open space he calmed down immediately.”
The EA Ranch, a 927 acre estate that breeds, boards, and trains thoroughbreds reminds me of a movie set (something between Falcon Crest and Seabiscuit), a mountain top with four or five houses, seven barns, countless corrals, and a racetrack. The long road leading into the ranch is lined with pepper trees and winds past an elegant arched barn with chandeliers and an upstairs office decked out in oversized Spanish furniture. There’s a small pool with ducks and turtles, and another that’s left dry due to drought. The ranch owner’s Spanish style house sits above the corrals and racetrack. The smaller house, where we sit, is used by one of the owner’s daughters and her husband when they visit the ranch and will be where Marguerite lives temporarily.
We watch a silhouette of horses graze on a western hill backlit from the setting sun, and I try to imagine how this picture might have been different. If not for Marguerite’s loyalty, commitment, and determination to stay and fight off the raging fires that two weeks earlier surrounded and encroached the ranch and ultimately razed her two story home, this entire estate and the horses might have all been destroyed.
“It was a nightmare,” says Marguerite. “Because the fire started on a Sunday, only four of the twenty-three workers were on the ranch. When we saw smoke, we had to get the horses (a hundred and eighty high-spirited thoroughbreds) into the barns.” Marguerite and I hop into her white jeep for a drive around the ranch, and it becomes obvious that even the gathering up of the horses must have taken several hours. The barns and fenced pastures reach every edge of the ranch. “I left that white mare in the middle of open dirt fields with a few yearlings. She’s a calm horse and I knew they would be safe. We’re treating one yearling for a corneal ulcer from an ember, otherwise there were no injuries.” The tranquility of the mare and a half dozen yearlings munching hay is a long stretch from the chaos they must have endured during the fire and wind storm.
“For a day and a half we fought with hoses and shovels.” She tells how the 100,000 gallon water tank had drained due to a melted PVC pipe. This required her and one of the men to drive down to a smaller water storage tank to fill five gallon buckets by hand, then drive to each barn to water the horses. “They would drink the water as fast as we filled up their buckets,” she says. “We must have made a hundred trips until my jeep finally ran out of gas.” The logistics seem overwhelming. She shows me the palms of her hands buffed smooth as glass from hours of flattening haystacks inside barns to keep embers from landing on them, and tells me how she jumped on stacks of packaged stall shavings piled around barns for the same reason. At one point during the fire, she drove to an area of small corrals near the racetrack that are shaded by several oak trees. “I beat out a fire that started from an ember landing on a small haystack with a board. I didn’t want to lose the trees,” she says.
“I had one man working the barns non-stop to put out flying embers that might ignite hay or the shavings in the horse stalls using a shovel and sand, and left two men to fight off flames down by the water tank. When I went back to the water tank and found the men sleeping, I told them, if you sleep, you will die.” Later, she shows me one of the barns where the winds tore off part of the metal roof and ripped off the sliding door. Fire ravaged two huge hay barns. “It took two days to burn $70,000 worth of hay,” she says. I tell her that I’d heard that winds had been clocked at 110 mph during the blaze. “I believe it. There was so much sand and smoke that we could barely see the roads. I kept pouring saline solution that I use for the horses into our eyes.” Time has become somewhat of a blur. She doesn’t quite remember when it was that two fire engines drove in to escort some cars out and advised everyone to evacuate, or when and who dropped off their horses at the ranch. “There are about five horses still here that we’re caring for, but I don’t know who they belong to.”
I hadn’t realized until our conversation that the 2003 fire had also threatened the ranch, but it was a different fire to fight, and while flames overtook hundred foot trees there weren’t the high winds shearing the landscape like a giant blow torch. “During that fire they (the CDF) dropped hot shots (fire fighters who parachute into terrain unreachable by vehicles and begin to cut brush and make fire breaks), and one fire engine came in to help,” says Marguerite.
A fire captain who drove into the EA Ranch last week to secure smoldering areas around the estate had said that he had taken one look at the fire the day it started and told his guys to go get some sleep and come back the next day. “There’s nothing you can do when the winds are blowing off roofs,” he said. “You can’t fly planes or send in hot shots and trucks. You just have to wait until it blows through.”
Eventually, our conversation shifts to Marguerite’s personal life. While she fought to save the ranch and horses, her house burned down. Yet when we walk to the ashen property with an almost three hundred and sixty degree view where she has lived for the more than twenty years that she has managed the ranch, it is not to show me what has been lost, but to fill numerous bird feeders and water containers for wildlife now left without their habitat. We move around hoses to drip water on charred oak trees that had already been stressed by years of drought. She picks through brittlebush and rosemary bushes to determine what might come back in the spring, and ignores the 10X10 patch of burnt nails, all that’s left of a gazebo. I asked about her mate of the past sixteen years, knowing that it had been a relationship with many ups and downs, and I learn that though he had lived with her, he worked as caretaker for a Rancho Santa Fe property. Where was he during the ordeal?
“Oh, he was here at the ranch during the fire,” says Marguerite. “But he couldn’t handle the stress of it all and stayed in the office and slept.” I’m more than a little shocked. He was here but didn’t do anything to fight the fire? Marguerite shakes her head. “He isn’t like me, and he did what he could, he made sandwiches for us. He tried his best, but just couldn’t handle the situation or understand why I wouldn’t leave when told to evacuate. After he left the ranch, his employer found him a home close to his work and gave him money. Our house where we lived and all our belongings burned. I told him there was nothing left to come back to.” Marguerite’s competent façade begins to crumble, just a bit. “I know that I’ve let the ranch consume my whole life, and I can’t expect my partner to feel the same. I’ve made mistakes in the relationship too and trying to learn from the past and move forward, even if it means that after the end of the day I’m here alone.”
November 5, 2007
by Angie Brenner
November 4, 2007
Lani, owner of Julian’s Soups & Such restaurant, sat behind the counter eating wheat pancakes under a mound of fresh fruit. She called out our orders to her husband and chef, Ibrahin, without leaving her perch.”Aren’t you tired?” she says. “I’m exhausted.” – a sentiment I have felt throughout the post-fire week as I move through my daily routine in slow motion. The fact that internet DSL connections were down throughout most of this community and the San Diego County administrative offices, helped to slow us all down.
Even tough-skinned rancher Ray Meyers looked beaten down yesterday while he ruminated over the events of the week from his fruit and vegetable stand. Ray always stays to protect his property and was a hero in the 2003 fire when faced with flames which overtook old oak trees in his back yard. He managed to keep the flames from jumping the highway and burning down houses along the road. The fact that he wasn’t challenged to repeat this event hadn’t lessened the anxiety.
My Saturday morning yoga class was grateful for the abbreviated, beginner class that helped ease the stress from our bodies. Lying in savasana (corpse pose), we felt tensions evaporate. Choosing ways to deal with PTSD (post traumatic stress Disorder) whether minor or major has become a way of life here. Free acupuncture sessions were made available at one of the local fire stations, and while I can’t picture Ray Meyers with needles poking out of his temples, there’s no doubt that we’ve come a long way in accepting new techniques in stress management.
Many of us ran into friends at the library since librarian Colleen Baker rallied to keep the community connected to the web by obtaining a Microsoft van equipped with computers. On Saturday, Julie and Rob Weaver were there scouring the net to price out lost antiques and household items for their insurance company. Teenagers zoned-out by playing online video games. Our schools, without the internet for the week, returned to old fashioned teaching methods.
Low-tech seemed to prevail during this fire when cell phones were blocked in order to keep emergency lines open; rotary dial phones (most kids today don’t even know what these look like) or plug-in landline phones worked best. Without phones, television, and internet, we have learned that disseminating information and sharing our stories between neighbors by word-of-mouth has given us quality information (difficult to get in emergencies), and a closer connection on a human level.
November 2, 2007
by Angie Brenner
November 2, 2007
The Weaver family (see previous blogs) are evaluating there losses and trying to bring normalcy to their lives. A friend offered them (and they accepted) a temporary vacant home, a ranch house a quarter mile from where Julie works as superintendent for the small Spencer Valley School and where Julian, her seventh grader, can walk to school. “I can walk to my friend’s house too,” he told me. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen Julian happier then when he got to walk home from school yesterday.
A Ramona High School senior, daughter Emily has stayed with her girl friend away from her family since the fire. “She’s acting as if she’s already on her own,” says her dad, and maybe that’s what she feels. And while mom Julie is looking at possible options for rebuilding and taking time to adjust, her husband Rob only wants to get a FEMA trailer so the family can return to their property as soon as possible, to go home. “Let’s wait and build a yurt,” she suggests, “it’s something we can use later.”
The family horse, Buddy, still wary from his ordeal in the fire, is recovering from burned eyes and singed coat at the EA Horse Ranch.
Rob has started to list everything that was lost for the insurance company claim: all his tools and fishing gear, and an antiquated book collection given to him by his grandmother. How do you list your entire life?
There are hundreds of people who lost homes in the 2003 fire available to give them advice on contractors and builders. “I was burned twice,” says one local, “Once when the fire destroyed my home, and twice by the insurance company!” It seems unanimous; the insurance companies have made rebuilding a nightmare. That is if you have insurance. Many home owners in the area can’t afford or get insurance, and almost no one has enough to cover all possessions. Regardless of how one can finance their new life, how does one begin to do it?
I’ve watched my friends during the past four years who have had to do this. They all go about it differently. One single woman who had just finished building her house months before the 2003 fire was the first to reconstruct the same house. The plans were so current that the county waived all building fees. Another friend not only rebuilt their exact two story log home, she went on E-Bay to replace each item lost, down to the china cups and saucers she’d inherited from her mother. My friend Fe, a local artist, lost her unique metal and stained glass home overlooking a valley. Without insurance coverage, she had to settle for a standard-issue, wood-frame two bedroom house. I’m sure she’ll give it her own style, eventually. Others simply sold their scorched and burned property and left for the Pacific Northwest. “I need green,” said my friend Susan when she and her husband decided to relocate to Eugene, Oregon.
The Weavers will find their new footing, of that I’m certain. But, how many others in the community will leave, I wonder. This fire has brought back old wounds and angst, and caused new anxieties to form. A slight gust of wind sends a shiver down my spine causing me to look up for smoke. This catalyst of nature that changes the way we look at our lives and possessions may be necessary, but it doesn’t make the process any less painful. Growth never is.
November 1, 2007
by Angie Brenner
November 1, 2007
Thirty or so Julian residents ambled into the Town Hall on Main Street Tuesday night to hear and be heard. There were almost as many CDF (California Department of Forestry) and local firefighter volunteers in attendance. I waited for applause, for the love-fest to begin. None of our homes were burned (mostly due to the diminishing forces of wind); and if the town had been threatened, the presence of seventy or more fire trucks in the area were ready. But the mood was somber.
Julian/Cuyamaca Volunteer Fire District Chief, Kevin Dubler, introduced the CDF officers present and took on the topic that apparently was brewing in the community: Mandatory Evacuation. “We’d expected that this fire would be similar to the Cedar Fire fours years ago, that onshore winds from the coast would turn east,” he said, coughing out the smoke still trapped deep into his lungs.
“But everything about this fire was different. It burned downhill against the wind and blew through areas already burned.”
I heard some of the fire terms such as blow over and laying down (when fire runs like a locomotive a foot or more on the ground slicing fence posts and melting brass tools in its wake); and leaf-freeze, when heat sucks out moisture so fast that tree leaves are frozen black in motion.
A hand waves in the air. “Those of us with defendable property and equipment should be able to stay,” said the man sitting in front of me. “It’s a free country.”
“In this fire and wind there was no such thing as a defendable property,” says Chief Dubler. “When people tell me they are staying, I ask them for their name and address so that when we get their 911 call, we can ignore it.” Dubler coughed again.
No one was fooled by his tough exterior. When he gets a call, we know that these volunteers, our neighbors who give up weekends and risk their lives to help our community, will come to our rescue.
For additional emphasis, one CDF captain adds his thoughts. “Two people on Highland Valley Road in Ramona are dead because they thought they could defend their house.” The group is silent.
A few days ago, I wrote about how we all need to rethink how we live in the back country (or the city for that matter). How we must learn to use generators and fire hoses and do a better job at clearing property and having supplies and water on hand to live independently for a week or more. While all this is true, my resolve to ‘stay and defend’ has weakened after listening to the fire fighters’ stories.
With over a half million people evacuated across San Diego County, there are many things that can go wrong, and communication is at the top of the list. Staying behind and risking my life and possibly that of the firemen who attempt to save me, or milling around the roads when trucks and equipment need to get through, should not be in the equation.
“We can’t pick and choose who is allowed to stay and who should leave,” says Dubler. “Evacuation means everyone.”
This is his party line of course, but we all know and admire those who stayed in their homes and have equipment and skills to defend them. Fortunately, this time they weren’t put to the test.
Yesterday, I’d heard the talk and criticism toward those who left, ‘the wimps’ as someone suggested. Then, I remembered Steve Rucker, the fireman who lost his life in 2003 on Orchard Lane at the house next door to artist James Hubbell. Certainly no wimp. He was experienced and had the latest fire fighting equipment on his truck. In a fiery instant he was gone. On Monday October 29th, thirty of his brothers gathered at the rebuilt house where each year Marabeth and Larry Lis create a memorial shrine to Steve, a place to go to grieve and to honor the man (like many others) who gave his life to save a home.
Nothing that I own would be worth losing a life, mine or someone else’s.
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