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Fires Bring Seven Days of Fury

They know what the winds can do. They forecast them. Fight the fires the winds fan. Prepare for evacuations that, in years past, never came. They thought they knew, until seven days of fury began a week ago.

From almost the beginning, this Santa Ana was different somehow.

Meteorologist Philip Gonsalves recognized it when he saw the smoke through the picture windows of the National Weather Service station in Rancho Bernardo closing in on the office itself. He had helped forecast the tempest: an ominous combination of strong gusts, low humidity and soaring temperatures. In weather speak: red flag fire conditions.


Fire Battalion Chief Tom Zeulner understood it, too, when en route to his first blaze of the week, his wife called to tell him five more fires had begun.

Dan Crane thought it was "situation normal," his words for the Santa Ana fire season that torments Californians every October through February, when blustery winds blow out of the desert. He's lived through a half-century of them, and never once had to evacuate - not even during the two-week onslaught of 2003, when fires burned 750,000 acres and killed 22 people.

This time, he awoke to neighbors honking and smoke wafting through his windows.

By Saturday, more than a half-million acres would be gone, 1,700 homes destroyed, with the damage surpassing $1 billion.

Stunned homeowners who just last weekend were setting out Halloween decorations and watching football would find themselves sifting through kindling and ash, mumbling things like: This used to be my kitchen. This used to be my bedroom.


This used to be ...

Even a week after it all started, several thousand would remain evacuated as blazes burned on relentlessly.

There would be questions about prevention in the midst of persistent drought, lack of preparation in a fire-plagued state and whether resources were put to use as fast as possible.

But first, before all of that, came the winds.

They were different, undoubtedly, although no one could have predicted just how deadly and destructive.

Gonsalves is a man who usually takes things in stride, especially the weather, perhaps because he knows it so well. He knows how easily a fire can kick up when the winds get going, and computer models at work had predicted a nasty Santa Ana for days.

And so, on Sunday morning when he stepped out of church and sniffed smoke, he was hardly surprised.

"It's begun,"he thought. "Here we go again."

The surprise came hours later, when Gonsalves arrived home from the gym and turned on the news.

Fires - plural - were everywhere:

The Ranch Fire, sparked at 9:42 p.m. the night before, racing through 500 acres some 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

The Canyon Fire, ignited at 4:50 a.m. in Malibu, forcing 1,500 people - even Hollywood's elite - to evacuate.

The Harris Fire, begun at 9:23 a.m. southeast of San Diego, exploding to 500 acres in just over three hours.

The Witch Creek Fire, burning at 12:37 p.m. in a mountain town northeast of San Diego, consuming 3,000 acres in two hours.

At the Weather Service office in the San Diego suburb of Rancho Bernardo, Gonsalves' colleagues watched as satellite images showed plume after plume of smoke roaring over a swath of Southern California. Their computers are programmed to display wildfire hot spots as little red squares. Red squares seemed to cover the lower half of the state.

By evening, the forecasters had to shut off the air conditioning to stop smoke from seeping into the office. Back at home, on his day off, Gonsalves was thinking about what to pack - just in case his own family had to flee.

Sunday was an off-day for Zeulner, as well. He, too, had gone to church, near his home in San Luis Obispo, and was having lunch when he got word: ";You guys are going."

A battalion chief with the city fire department, Zeulner commands a 20-member strike team that operates five, Type 1 fire engines, ideal for defending homes and structures. The team, when called upon, can be dispatched anywhere.

They were summoned to the Ranch Fire, to help protect homes in the tiny citrus-growing village of Piru.

"Immediate need," Zeulner had been told. In other words: Get there fast.

By 2 p.m., the caravan of engines was on the road, Zeulner monitoring AM radio for fire updates. The 33-year veteran was alarmed by what he heard. Winds were gusting from 60 to 80 mph; in some places, they exceeded 100 mph.

"That's hurricane force," thought Zeulner, who knew from experience that anything over 60 mph was unusual during Santa Ana season.

When the team arrived at the fire, they were told to bed down and be ready to work at dawn the next day. Zeulner set up camp in a park under the smoky sky, but rest was hard to come by.

His sleeping bag rocked back and forth throughout the night, the mighty winds tossing him about like a leaf.

Crane awoke early Monday and looked at the clock: 4 a.m. He smelled smoke coming through his bedroom window, but when he got up to shut it, he heard something on the street below. A car honking, he thought. He peered outside.

Rancho Bernardo's Lancashire Way, Crane's home for 20 years, looked like an erupting volcano.

"We gotta go!" he yelled to his wife, Sherry, still in bed. "Now!"

Their neighbor's wooden fence was ablaze, the palm trees in front of that house igniting like matchsticks. Glowing embers shot horizontally across the street. To the north and east, a line of flames lit up the ridge near a subdivision called The Trails. To the south, Battle Mountain, directly behind Crane's home, went up like a Roman candle.

Terrified neighbors roused one another with phone calls and knocks on the door, driving past police officers who cruised a nearby street, shouting through bullhorns, "Evacuate! Now!"

Elsewhere across San Diego County, reverse 911 calls alerted residents to fires that had gone out of control overnight. In a day, the Witch Creek Fire grew from 3,000 acres to 30,000, eating through the communities of Rancho Bernardo, Escondido, Rancho Santa Fe, Poway - taking out multimillion-dollar estates and modest ranch homes.

The biggest evacuation in California state history was just getting started. Some 560,000 would be forced from their homes in San Diego County alone. Qualcomm Stadium, home to the NFL's San Diego Chargers, was opened to evacuees in a scene reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina. The Del Mar Fairgrounds and schools housed others.

At the Weather Service office, Gonsalves arrived just after 6 a.m. to start his regular shift. He saw the smoke hanging low out the window, the line of cars snaking down West Bernardo Drive. Three hours later, the forecasters received a reverse 911.

They, too, packed up and decamped.

By nightfall, more than 500 homes had already been demolished in San Diego County. Two fires that began just that day in the mountain vacation haven of Lake Arrowhead would destroy 300 more. Elsewhere across California, more than a dozen fires were now burning, incinerating 374 square miles in seven counties.

And Monday afternoon, this warning from the Weather Service: "Strong winds are expected to redevelop tonight."

The wrath of the Santa Anas was far from over.

All the chatter on the radio was about San Diego. But Zeulner and his crew had their own firefight to deal with - for 4½ hours Tuesday afternoon near Piru, after a blowing ember landed in steep vegetation.

They had spent much of their time doing structure protection: clearing away brush and moving wood piles stacked next to wood-sided homes, work homeowners themselves should have done in this drought-stricken state. The Ranch Fire, 1,000 acres when Zeulner first got the assignment, had grown to almost 40,000.

But he was proud that his crew had yet to lose a home.

In San Diego, Crane couldn't say the same. Tuesday, watching the news with his son at a friend's house where they'd taken refuge, he saw a reporter walking up and down Lancashire Way. Flames still burned from the remnants of some houses.

"Twenty-five homes, on this one block ... have burned to the ground," the reporter was saying.

And, then, he started reading off house numbers.

For a moment, Crane and his son thought they didn't hear 18626. Then: "635 ... 629 ... 626 ..." the reporter said.

Crane and his boy, whose own family lived a mile away but whose house survived, looked at each other.

"Now we know," Crane said.

Over the next two days, such heartbreaking discoveries happened again and again across the region. At a blaze farther north in Santa Clarita, Don Benson found his house and prized 1957 Thunderbird in ruins. A neighbor drove by, sending a wish for better days: "I hope God is good to you." "I believe in him," Benson called back, "but sometimes it wears thin."

Zeulner, whose team late Wednesday was dispatched to San Diego to pitch in, escorted an elderly couple to their lost home in Escondido the next day. "We're sorry for your loss," he told them. "We're here to help." What else could he say?

Even as President Bush arrived on Thursday, offering words of comfort, there was more devastating news: A 58-year-old mortgage broker and his 55-year-old wife, a teacher, were found in the rubble of an Escondido home. Another 52-year-old man died after refusing to leave his house during evacuations. The charred remains of four others, believed to be illegal immigrants, were found in the woods near the border. Authorities were investigating whether the deaths were due to the fires.

Word that at least one of the major blazes, in Orange County, was deliberately set spread further outrage.

And still more towns faced new evacuations, among them Julian, an apple-picking hamlet in the mountains northeast of San Diego, and Jamul, a community near the border where homes can go for a million-plus.

There was, however, one reason for optimism. By Thursday night, the ruthless winds that fueled the calamity had finally died.

Come Friday, Gonsalves and his colleagues were back at their computers at the weather office, swapping war stories in between work about their own fire encounters. The office was unscathed, but for the lingering stench of smoke.

Gonsalves was lucky; his family never had to evacuate. One colleague remained displaced from his home in Julian, though even that evacuation order had lifted by Saturday morning.

Zeulner was enjoying his first 24 hours off in five days, although, given the circumstances, enjoying hardly seemed the right word. He still had no idea when he might head home, or whether he'd miss a vacation to see his 5-month-old granddaughter.

And at 6 a.m. Saturday, he and his crew reported for yet another day of duty in San Diego.

He joked that he'd better at least be back by Dec. 28 - the day he retires from the fire department.

"I got in the fire service to help people," he said, his eyes reddening with tears because, despite so much loss, he believes he did help people this past week. "It's a good feeling."

At the remains of his home on Lancashire Way, Crane's eyes were noticeably dry of tears. Instead, there was a sense of optimism in him and the neighbors who flooded back to begin cleaning up, and returned Saturday to pick up more pieces. They exchanged hugs and "I'm so sorrys," talked about getting together, already, in the coming days to discuss rebuilding.

"Did I want to start over at this time in my life? No," 60-year-old Crane said. "But my family is fine. I'm fine."

Everything else, he said, "is just stuff. I can make it through this."

Like the soot-covered CorningWare dish, the ceramic salt shaker and his father's old circular saw that he recovered from the ashes - "little miracles," a neighbor called such precious finds, so desperately needed in a week of so few.