SAN DIEGO -- In the rolling high country near Santa Ysabel, cattle rancher Glenn Drown got a call shortly after noon last Sunday, from his sister-in-law just down the hill.
“I smell smoke,” she said.
Drown, 52, stepped onto his porch and saw a spiral of smoke rise in the southwest, over a hill on his family’s 4,500-acre ranch. A large tanker plane swooped down, dropping fire retardant in a boulder-strewn gulch called Witch Creek. But the fierce winds seemed to vaporize much of the payload before it even hit the ground.
Before long, the flames had raced downhill into a small meadow. The blaze was fast and fickle. The oaks didn’t even catch fire. Nor did the windmill that pumped water for their cattle. The flames just flowed around them, speeding toward thick scrub, straight to his sister-in-law’s house.
Drown ran to his truck and drove west on California 78 to help her. Janet Tulloch would be the first among hundreds of thousands of San Diego County residents who would choose between fleeing and staying. Many fled, filling evacuation centers. Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego eventually held as many as 13,000.
Tulloch stayed, and firefighters helped keep her home from burning. The fire roared past, chewing up the first of the nearly 200,000 acres it would devour.
Along the way, the Witch fire would claim at least two lives and destroy 1,040 homes and more than 400 other structures, making it one of the most destructive wildfires in the state’s history.
Interviews and fire reports obtained by The Times show that the fire began shortly after noon last Sunday, below power lines on Drown’s ranch, and halted two days later in a small valley between Rancho Santa Fe and Fairbanks Ranch, five miles from the sea. It continues to burn on its northern and eastern flanks.
Much of its destruction occurred within a 24-hour period of chaos, desperation, heroism and cold decision-making.
‘Looks like another Cedar’
As Drown and his sister-in-law dodged the fire Sunday afternoon, Kelly Zombro headed into it.
Four years ago, the battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection had helped lead the battle against the Cedar fire that demolished 2,232 homes and killed 15 people. Now he was back, leading the fight against another maelstrom eating through chaparral left largely untouched by the Cedar and Paradise fires of 2003. Most of the dense vegetation had not burned in 25 years.
The memory of those who died in the Cedar fire still pains Zombro, who was among the first to warn of its potential devastation.
Driving north on California 67, he saw a column of smoke rising above the distant hills and considered how to snuff out the flames. Last year, air tankers had quickly doused a blaze in the same area. Perhaps the same strategy would work.
As Zombro drove east on California 78, his optimism waned.
“I saw 80-foot flames just rolling en masse,” he said. “I knew that wasn’t good.”
Zombro knew that Santa Ana winds funneling down from the deserts were expected to strengthen by Sunday evening. Sending firefighters in on foot would be dangerous and futile.
“Our chance of success was minimal to none,” Zombro said. “There was no way to put the fire out.”
Air tankers fighting the Harris fire farther south had altered their runs, dropping about eight loads of retardant on the Witch fire. But as gusts reached 70 mph and turbulence above the blaze grew, the aircraft were grounded. Zombro warned nearby fire and law enforcement agencies to get ready for an onslaught. Blowing embers were igniting spot fires as much as a half-mile in front of the fire’s main head.
Within hours, the blaze was racing toward Ramona, a quiet community of 36,000 in the heart of San Diego County.
As it reached a large hill near the town, it split into two. One flank headed south, the other west. Zombro got on the radio.
“Looks like another Cedar,” he said. “We’re going to do it again.”
For centuries, fire has helped renew the rugged chaparral in the area surrounding Ramona. In the high country where the Witch fire started, broad, broken meadows and pastures drain southwest through narrow ravines into the San Pasqual Valley, flush with oak, chamise and yucca. Persistent drought had left it tinder-dry.
As the Witch fire rode the Santa Anas west, Zombro called for evacuations around Ramona and beyond. He made urgent requests for more of everything: crews, trucks, aircraft. But resources were stretched thin, fighting fires from the Antelope Valley to the Mexican border.
A desperate stand
Near Lake Sutherland, Wayne Mosser, 37, a farrier, decided he and his Arabian horses weren’t moving, despite flames that seemed to roll over the hills in platoons. He sent his wife and two children away. He and his two stepbrothers stayed behind.
Around 10 p.m., a 20-foot-high wall of flames barreled down his 8 1/2-acre property at the eastern end of Ramona Valley, pushing an electric-red meteor shower of embers. A volunteer fire crew helped him douse spot fires on his deck, but with a nearby hydrant delivering water no faster than a garden hose, they soon told him they were moving on.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Mosser said he shot back.
They argued, and the crew remained. Mosser’s house survived. The house next door burned to the ground. The Arabians survived, with singed eyebrows. But hundreds of charred jack rabbits littered the fields.
Scarred by his memory of the Cedar fire, Zombro had immediate priorities: saving lives first, protecting property second. The “reverse 911" alert system, he thought, seemed to be doing its job. People were streaming out. But as the blaze barreled west in the early morning hours Monday, Zombro flashed back to the Cedar fire.
“I knew that people were going to die that night” in 2003, Zombro said, “and I knew that it could happen this time.”
‘Wet your hair!’
For most of the afternoon Sunday, Dena Bielasz had been tracking the Witch fire from her hilltop home above the San Pasqual Valley northwest of Ramona. By that evening, she could see flames on a distant hillside. It looked far off, she thought.
Still, the Santa Anas were blowing so hard they were moving wrought-iron patio furniture on the deck. She called her neighbors, John “Chris” Bain and his wife, Vicky, about 9 p.m. and told them of her worry. The Bains drove to the top of nearby Starvation Mountain for a better look.
About an hour later, Vicky called back with a report: “The fire is a long ways away,” Bielasz recalled her saying.
Reassured, Dena and her husband, Roger, went to bed around midnight. But around 1:30 a.m., Roger, who had been having trouble sleeping, got up to go to the bathroom. He looked out the window and saw what appeared to be some kind of electrical explosion in the valley below.
“You could see this red-hot power line pulsing and throwing sparks in the riverbed down there,” Dena recalled.
Dena, 51, and Roger, 60, threw on some clothes and began packing a suitcase. By the time they were done, it was too late.
“The fire was there,” Dena said. “It was that fast. . . . Even if we had gotten in our car, we would have been incinerated.”
As the house filled with smoke, the couple moved to the garage. Eventually, the heat and smoke forced them into their swimming pool. For the next four hours, they huddled together, trying to keep their bodies warm in the chilly water and their exposed heads protected from the oven-like heat of the fire.
“Wet your hair! Wet your hair!” Dena said she told Roger. “Don’t let your head catch on fire!”
They listened as prized bottles of wine exploded in the house where they were wed 19 years earlier. They were afraid they were going to die.
Shivering uncontrollably and cramping from the cold water, the couple climbed out of the pool just before dawn. The deck railing had melted and looked “like pieces of licorice,” Dena said.
They huddled on the ground for several more hours as the fire burned around them, claiming all five homes on their short strip of mountaintop road. At daylight, they made their way to the main road below, Dena leading Roger by the hand because his eyes were caked with soot.
Days later, they learned that the Bains never made it out. A search-and-rescue team found their bodies in the rubble of their home. Dena is left to imagine what the couple went through.
“I think that they were blindsided,” Dena said. “I don’t think they knew. They would have been out of there. They would have called us. They would have been honking their horn and telling us to leave.”
For 21 years, Kevin Hitchcock has fought fires for the Poway Fire Department. As he monitored the fire’s path late Sunday, he knew it was just a matter of time before it barreled into his city and neighboring Rancho Bernardo. But how much time, he wondered?
Shortly after 10 p.m., Hitchcock climbed into his red SUV, flipped on the sirens and lights and sped down the shoulder of a road clogged with Ramona evacuees. He wanted to survey the approaching danger.
By 3:45 a.m. Monday, he saw the first tentacles of the fire hit the outskirts of town. Soon it started to devour homes.
“It went bad right from the get-go,” Hitchcock, 48, said. “The fire was so explosive.”
By about 4:30 a.m., the blaze had trapped residents in neighborhoods between Espola and Pomerado roads, where Poway and neighboring Rancho Bernardo meet. In one narrow valley, several families and a stable of horses were cut off from their only escape.
Like Zombro, Hitchcock is a veteran of the Cedar fire.
“I was convinced that was a once-in-a-career fire,” he said as the flames continued to threaten his city. “I can’t believe this is happening again.”
‘What’s wrong, Mommy?’
In Rancho Bernardo, Donna Marques awoke around 4 a.m. to the sound of crackling on the hill above her home. She looked out her window and saw fire coming from the street above hers. She and her husband leapt out of bed and woke their two sons.
“What’s wrong, Mommy? What’s wrong?” her 4-year-old screamed.
The family jumped into the minivan. They didn’t pack anything. Her husband didn’t have shoes on. As they peeled out of the garage, embers pelted the neighborhood. They honked their horn to wake up neighbors, but didn’t dare stop.
Days later, the Marqueses returned, driving down Pomerado to Fieldstone Drive. They turned left onto Locksley, getting their first view into the smoky San Pasqual Valley. All four homes at the end of the cul-de-sac were gone. Theirs, halfway down the block, was still standing. At least 33 other homes in the neighborhood were not.
At one house, the second-story plumbing lay looped and twisted in the blackened rubble. But ripe lemons clung to a torched tree and a pocket of grass remained green. A paper jack-o'-lantern and a sheet ghost still hung from a pine tree.
During its first 24 hours, the Witch fire had cut a deadly swath across the heart of San Diego County, but the danger was far from over.
Flames went on to destroy hundreds more homes as the fire fingered into Escondido and Rancho Santa Fe, losing momentum only when winds reversed to a moist onshore breeze. It stopped about five miles from the coast. To the north, it raced toward Valley Center, ultimately merging with the Poomacha fire. Its flames still threaten Julian, off to the east of Drown’s ranch. As of Saturday, the Witch fire was 75% contained. Officials hope to corral it by Halloween.
Over the course of a week, nearly 3,000 firefighters battled the blaze at a cost of more than $11 million. Among the injured were 32 firefighters.
Days after the fire started, Drown was back at work at the Tullock family ranch, rounding up cattle, fixing fences and dousing smoldering hot spots.
“I know it started right here because nothing was burned on that side,” Drown said, pointing to a patch of charred grass near an old San Diego Gas and Electric power line traversing his property.
Fire officials would later confirm that they suspect arcing wires were the culprit in the Witch fire.
“High winds out here and power lines,” Drown said, “don’t do well together.”
Times staff writers Scott Gold, Joel Rubin, Robert Lopez and Matt Lait contributed to this report.