As flames near in Carlsbad, there's just enough time to grab and go

As flames near in Carlsbad, there's just enough time to grab and go
Sophie Payne visits her destroyed home on Black Rail Road in Carlsbad. As one fleeing resident said as flames climbed the hillside toward his backyard: "You just don't think it's going to happen to you." (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The flames came fast and fierce to this hilltop community near the ocean, and when the call came to evacuate, Andrew Gilmore and his father grabbed what they could — a few photo albums, some personal belongings — and sped away.

When they returned hours later, what remained of the two-story home they'd lived in for eight years was no more than a shell with a pile of ashes inside, still smoldering.


Adam Gilmore, Gilmore's younger brother, stood next to a line of red caution tape stretched in front of his house and watched the smoke curl from what remained. He stepped over the line briefly and picked up a burned page from the children's book "The Night Before Christmas" that had fluttered from the home.

"This is a place where we spent so much time, have so many memories," he said.

It was a frenzied day and long night in Carlsbad, where shifting winds Wednesday drove a fast-moving brush fire into the neat and tidy neighborhoods of this San Diego County town. Residents fled with just minutes of warning, grabbing what they could — some running down the street for safety, some driving away only to find themselves barreling toward one of the other fires that seemed to erupt like clockwork through the day.

By the time Thursday morning arrived, the so-called Poinsettia blaze in Carlsbad had burned through 400 acres of suburbia.

In just a few hours it had destroyed four homes, several units of an apartment complex and two commercial buildings. Six homes were also damaged. The destruction was less than initially estimated, but some lost nearly everything.

The threat of fire is familiar here, and homeowners take precautions — they have sprinkler systems and do their best to keep the brush away. Many vividly remember the massive fires that tore through this county in the previous decade, destroying thousands of structures as they mowed through neighborhoods. But, as one fleeing resident said as flames climbed the hillside toward his backyard:

"You just don't think it's going to happen to you."

Those who lost their homes were in shock Thursday morning. Next door to the Gilmores on Black Rail Road, Bob Payne leaned against a shovel, which he brought to sift through the debris.

"We thought we could salvage something, but it's gone," he said.

The house, which he bought when he retired a few years ago, was his dream home. He'd saved for decades to buy it, working as a bus driver, and then he packed "every square inch" of the place with knickknacks and photos collected over a lifetime.

"It's just stuff," he said. "But it's our stuff."

Blocks away, Gregory Saska walked around the ashen remains of his own home — a decades-old adobe built long before the tract homes that surround it.

Saska said he'd lived in the home for three decades, and that despite his best efforts to protect it with a garden hose, the flames became overwhelming and he watched the place burn.

Two cars in the garage, one in the driveway and two boats were also destroyed. A line of eucalyptus trees planted to keep the noise away had turned black. On Thursday morning, a neighbor with a hose doused a smoldering palm tree on Saska's property.


"This is crazy," Saska said. "But I'm alive. So I have to be happy."

On nearby Martingale Court, a fourth home looked as if it had burned from the inside out. Across the road, Mike and Jenene McGonigal looked out at the house, whose owners they've known since they all moved into the neighborhood about 14 years ago.

"I feel stunned and sort of in shock," Jenene McGonigal said. "It just shouldn't have happened."

As firefighters fought the blaze Wednesday afternoon, the McGonigals ran into the garage and tried to save what they could for their friends, who weren't home when the fire erupted. They grabbed a table saw and some hockey equipment.

Firefighters stopped them after a while. But they also pitched in, walking over to the McGonigals' home and handing them four pictures of the homeowners' son and daughter, which the couple carefully placed in their own garage for safekeeping.