Long-coming Witch Creek Fire repairs, improvements headed to Rancho Bernardo
Nearly 16 years after the Witch Creek Fire burned more than 197,000 acres in San Diego County, 9,000 of which were in the city, San Diego leaders Monday kicked off improvements and repairs for streets impacted by the blaze.
Mayor Todd Gloria, City Councilwoman Marni von Wilpert and state Senate President pro Tempore Toni G. Atkins joined city staff and community members on Monday to begin the Witch Creek Fire Street Improvements project in Rancho Bernardo.
"Sixteen years after the Witch Creek fire burned through this community, the Westwood neighborhood of Rancho Bernardo is finally on its way to healing," said Atkins. "I appreciate the residents who never stopped advocating for funding to fix their streets."
"I’m glad they’re finally doing something but it took an awful long time," said longtime resident Fred Gahm. He and his wife saw many of his neighbors lose their homes while their own was spared.
Diane Ron lives just down the street from the Gahms, and is one of the 1,100 whose homes were destroyed.
"Yeah, it’s still hard to think about it," she said, breaking down in tears. “All the ash… The chimney — it was all that (was) left.”
Her home was rebuilt, but the trauma is still there, and the damage to the neighborhood remained for years.
Ron said the streets in her neighborhood needed work even before the fire, and she was upset by Monday’s news conference, where city leaders spoke about the work it took to get the funding for repairs.
"It’s a laugh, the Witch Creek Fire repairs. Everyone is repaired already,” she said. “It’s the city who was lagging so far behind.”
"San Diego's road-repair investments have historically been as patchy as our pavement and inadequate to keep our network of roughly 3,000 miles of streets in the condition that residents expect," Gloria said in a statement. "My administration is moving to change that with consistent, focused investments in cost-effective road repairs. The residents of Rancho Bernardo's Westwood neighborhood have waited far too long for their streets to be fixed, and I'm happy that, today, we are getting it done."
The Witch Creek Fire started Oct. 21, 2007, when Santa Ana winds knocked down power lines east of Ramona. Flames spread to San Diego city limits and merged with the Guejito Fire, which started in the San Pasqual Valley.
At the time, the fire was the fourth-largest blaze in California history. More than 360 homes were lost to the fire in Rancho San Bernardo alone of more than 1,000 structures destroyed. The fire killed a couple in their home in Poway.
Since 2007, following years of devastating fire seasons across the state, the Witch Creek Fire dropped to 19th-largest, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
"Sixteen years later, this community is still recovering from the devastating wildfires," von Wilpert said. "These repairs are critical to that recovery process."
One of the people helping with the repairs now had been driven from his home by the fire in 2007. Ricardo Marquis is a water tender operator who lived in Ramona.
"We had to evacuate. We left our house for almost a week," said Marquis on Monday.
Despite not having a steady place to live that week, he showed up to work — in the fire zone, helping to deliver truckloads of water to fight the flames.
"You couldn't even see this neighborhood, the smoke was so thick," he said. "All of this, homes, trees, animals, they were all burned."
He said he’s proud to now be part of the team repairing the roads.
"We did what we could. It feels great to help," he said.
The $5.26 million project is intended to repair 2.3 miles of roads with asphalt overlay, upgrade sidewalks and curb ramps to be ADA-compliant, remove and replace cross gutters and curbs and gutters, and restripe roadways. All resurfacing is expected to be completed by the end of June, according to the city.
Funding for the project includes $2.5 million in a state grant designated for wildfire repairs provided by Atkins. Work will take place on Aguamiel Road, Azucar Way, Alcalde Court, Grillo Court, Nevoso Way, Sedero Court, Palito Court, Danza Circle, Escoba Place, Aliento Court and Cabela Drive.