First-time homeowner ready to 'go down with his ship'

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SAN DIEGO -- The two men stood 50 feet apart, each well aware the other was watching, each, in his own way, a sentinel.

All around them, the Witch fire raged Monday afternoon.

Winds gusted at 50 mph, sending lawn chairs cartwheeling down the once-tidy streets. Smoke and sand and soot and embers whipped the air into a nasty stew. Flames seemed to be everywhere.

Officer Jay Odom, a broad-shouldered, 27-year veteran of the San Diego Police Department, parked his motorcycle at one of the entrances to a community called Westwood, on the western edge of Rancho Bernardo in northern San Diego. He needed to get everyone out and then keep them out until the fire passed -- everyone, that is, except for the scores of firefighters trying to save the homes.

Inside the first house on the first block past Odom's checkpoint, Muhammed Ashtari, an earnest college student, aspiring pharmacist and, as of this spring, a first-time homeowner, paced back and forth in his living room. On a flat-screen television, the news was on, and it was not good.

They spoke just once, when Ashtari, 21, ventured briefly outside.

"You'd better get out," Odom told him.

"I'm going to be staying here," Ashtari replied.

What resulted, over the course of the day, was a standoff, just one hidden piece of the larger picture that played out when wildfires prompted the sudden evacuation of an estimated quarter-million households in San Diego County.

Odom and his partner had gone door to door in the early hours of the fire, telling people about the evacuation, making sure the residents were on their way out. It was a chaotic race through the neighborhood.

"We had fire over our heads, jumping from palm tree to palm tree," he said. "We couldn't see. We couldn't breathe."

At one point, a flaming palm frond whacked his partner across the face.

"Look," Odom said, pointing toward him. "You can see the mark on his mustache. Caught him right in the kisser."

For the most part, the evacuation succeeded.

Schools emptied. Strip malls and office parks shut down.

In front of houses in the Westwood community, children's bikes were abandoned on the sidewalk, their training wheels pointing toward the dark sky.

A fresh pair of skid marks led from one driveway toward the road out, suggesting that someone was very serious about leaving.

Periodically, residents pulled up to Odom's checkpoint at the corner of Rancho Bernardo Road and Olmeda Way, asking if they could quickly get back in for one reason or another.

One man wanted to rescue his collection of antique firearms. One wanted to find his cat. Another a bottle of cough medicine.

Each time, Odom said essentially the same thing: "Can't go in there. Sorry."

Not everyone, though, had left.

Ashtari saw his four-bedroom house as an investment that could change his life. With his girlfriend of five years, his sister and his brother-in-law, and some financial assistance from his mother, a registered nurse, they had scraped together a down payment. They bought it out of foreclosure from a bank. Price: $420,000.

It is a work in progress. New rose bushes line the front walkway, but the detritus of unfinished home-improvement projects clutters the yard. A table and chairs on the back patio take in a nice view of Battle Mountain, but there is no dining table. Still, it is theirs. And no one, Ashtari figured, cared about it more than he did. If it were to catch on fire, he said, who would be there to help? If every fire had to start with a single ember, he figured, couldn't he put that ember out himself?

So Ashtari told his sister to leave, to go to their mother's place closer to downtown San Diego. She did, her car packed with their photo albums, the loan papers for the house, a laptop computer.

Ashtari told his girlfriend, 20-year-old Trang Pham, recently accepted into a nursing program at San Diego State, to go with his sister. She declined. They'd started dating five years ago at Mount Carmel High School in Rancho Peñasquitos.

"If he's going to stay, I'm going to stay," Pham said. She smiled politely, then walked back into the kitchen, where she began to wash the lunch dishes.

His mother, Ferechteh Nikrafter, called, worried about them. She started the conversation in English: "Why are you still there?" Then she switched to their native Persian; Ashtari was born in Iran and moved to the United States as a boy. "Dahaiti," she told him. It's an expression, he said later, that essentially means "Don't be foolish."

He did not feel foolish, he said.

Over the course of the day, he watched the news, freezing the screen with his remote control from time to time so he could study a map of the active fire zones.

He positioned a stepladder under the opening to the attic and poked his head up there every few minutes, using a flashlight to make sure no embers had worked their way inside.

He stared out the back window at the fires, as Battle Mountain faded in and out from behind a blanket of smoke.

Occasionally, a helicopter thundered overhead, carrying water or flame retardant to an active wall of fire just a few blocks away.

"I don't want to be somewhere far away and find out that something has happened to the house," he said. "Here, I can do something. I can keep an eye out."

Outside, Odom seethed.

"I just don't understand the mentality," he said. "You do your darndest to help them. And they do their darndest not to let you help."

Under a mandatory evacuation order, police could have theoretically removed Ashtari and the other holdouts by force, Odom said.

"We just don't have the manpower," he said. "We don't have the bodies to drag them out kicking and screaming."

Firefighters say authorities cannot remove residents from a home but can bar them from returning if they do leave.

Odom said he and his colleagues would man the checkpoint until they were forced to leave to protect themselves.

"If that happens, I'll go pound on the door to give them one last warning," Odom said. "Then I'm gone."

Ashtari said he was ready.

"If a captain wants to go down with his ship," he said, "they let him."

With the sky choked with smoke, nightfall came early Monday. The house was still standing. The fire was still raging.