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|| News Item: Posted 2007-11-11

Not The Typical 'Bye Week'
By K.C. Alfred, San Diego Union-Tribune

Photo by K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune

Photo by K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune

San Diego Police officer Juan Garcia puts out a hot spot at a house on Aguamiel Road in Rancho Bernardo during a firestorm on Monday, October 22, 2007. Garcia saved this home.
On what was supposed to be a relaxing Sunday off due to a Chargers bye week, the last thing I expected was to be covering a repeat of the Cedar Fire, which was the largest fire in state history, just four years earlier.

This time around, four fires would burn nearly 300,000 acres, destroy over 1,300 structures and force over 500,000 people to evacuate from their homes, and that was only in San Diego County. Where do you even begin to cover an event this size?

Many great images were made during the fires. Photographs of 50-foot flames, water dropping helicopters, and fire victims crying amongst the ruins of their burned down homes get most of the photo attention. But oftentimes, heroic acts don't get the play they deserved because they simply didn't make dramatic photos.

San Diego police officer Juan Garcia didn't get his picture in the paper. Of course, all he did was save a couple of houses from burning down. While patrolling in Rancho Bernardo, he donned a mask, grabbed a garden hose and doused a spot fire in the bushes between two homes on Aguamiel Street. The flames were as high as the two-story house at their peak. But, if he and his partner hadn't jumped in, those two homes would probably be a pile of rubble now.

Same goes for San Diego firefighter Dave Stepp who could have easily let the home of Chris and Amy Fousek burn down. The master bedroom was fully engulfed in flames, and the homes on each side were completely ablaze. Stepp saved most of the home that normally would have been written off. The couple returned two days later to look at the damage, and to see that their kid's pet fish had survived along with most of their home.

While San Diego Fire Capt. Dan Froelich's and his crew were saving house after house in Rancho Bernardo, they took care of a Great Dane in the cab of their engine they found wandering the streets. Occasionally they would take it out for a drink of water and a bathroom break as they fought fires that showed no mercy. The dog was reunited with its owner about six hours later.

Photo by K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune

Photo by K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune

Ann and Jeff Owens eat a piece of cake to celebrate Jeff's 66th birthday in front of their burned down home on Horizon Court in Poway on Wednesday, October 24, 2007.
Scenes like these repeated themselves countless times over the course of the week. Although tragedy and devastation played out night after night on the television news, there were a lot of San Diegans doing amazing acts in the midst of this disaster. And on the following Sunday after the fires began, firefighters and other law enforcement were honored before a Chargers game at Qualcomm Stadium, a place that earlier in the week housed thousands of fire evacuees. Dubbed the Ritz Carlton of evacuations sites, volunteers often outnumbered evacuees.

There were so many photographs to make during the fires. It was often hard to decide which ones to pursue, and which ones to pass on. You often have no idea what is happening around the next block, or over the next hill. You try to do what you can, but there is no way to show the enormity of such an event.

Since most of the areas were closed off to residents, you could drive around for hours looking for people at their homes or firefighters mopping up hotspots. Two days after fire roared through one neighborhood, I came upon a group of La Mesa firefighters who were sifting through the remains of their fellow fire fighter's home, which burned to the ground.

Firefighter Dan Lachenbruch had not been able to return to his home because he was still out fighting a fire in a different part of the county, but his colleagues got on their hands and knees and tried to find anything they could salvage.

Finally, Ann Owens might have best summed up San Diego's resilient attitude toward this fire. Even though her Poway home had just burned down, she didn't forget her husband Jeff's 66th birthday. As they went through the remains of their home, she presented a cake to her husband. Like many other many other victims, they were not going to let this fire get their spirits down.

(K.C. Alfred is staff photographer for the San Diego Union-Tribune.)

Related Links:
Alfred's member page

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