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Witch Creek Fire: 5 Years Later
Posted on September 2, 2012
You have those moments in your life where you remember exactly what you felt like and where you were when something monumental occurred. The squeeze of my dad’s hand when he walked me down the aisle on my wedding day was one. The first time I heard the cry of one of my three daughters when they were born resonates beautifully. Those celebratory moments are precious. On January 28, 1986, my grade school friends and I watched in sadness as the Challenger explosion occurred. On September 11, 2001, I watched the World Trade Center collapse with friends at a YMCA in Florida, while my husband was deployed, knowing little of what was to come. And, on the morning of October 20, 2007, my family of five evacuated our home after the reverse 911 call came through. We feverishly packed up our favorite things. The smoke was already present and we watched the air grow from grey, to red, to black as we sat in a line of cars exiting 92127. The Witch Creek Fires had jumped in to our very own community. Those moments are vivid.
We had the absolute privilege of meeting with Larry Himmel, longtime newscaster for Channel 8 News, and his family to get their personal account of how they were affected by the Witch Creek Fires. We asked Larry to take us through the day of when he watched his own home smolder to the ground. He, so graciously and effortlessly, told us the story. His family gave us a bird’s eye view of the path of the fire as they toured our team around their fireproof home that has been rebuilt on the very grounds of remains of their old home. It’s clear, after looking back at the fires and the rebuilding that has occurred, our community and communities at large are quite a team. We welcome you to reminisce, reward those who were the heroes, and remind yourself to be prepared as we enter fire season.
“Well the morning began for me as it did for most folks in Rancho Bernardo in the pre-dawn hours with a phone call from a friend who lived just a little bit farther east saying “do you see the flames, can you smell the smoke?” Sure enough they were there. I could see the red glow just over the hill. So, I knew it was time to leave. By the time I got turned around and headed back to the fire with my camera man, it was right on top of the house. And it was obvious that I wasn’t going to get back. There was a fire truck passing by. It was just a pickup truck, it wasn’t even a water unit. They put us in the back of the truck, my camera man and myself, and drove us up there. And the house was already engulfed.
And that’s when I stepped in to the drive way and started reporting on what I saw. I wish I could say it was kind of a heroic venture. That I saw my duty and I did it. But it was more of an out of body experience kind of like being shell shocked in a war. And I had pretty much, by my training, been predisposed to report on what I was seeing. So, I was looking at a house on fire, it was my house. And I was reporting what I saw as best I could trying to take the emotions out of it, which were strong, because I knew at the time people in San Diego were watching me in front of my house reporting on it on fire, my family was seeing it for the first time. So that’s how they discovered they didn’t have a house either. So, it was really emotional and really close to home.
And I can remember coming back the next day to bring my family back for our first tour of the burnt up bulk of the house. Still smoldering. And when we got back there, somebody had come on to the property and brought a dozen shovels and some sifters and gloves, brand new, all of it brand new, and also an orange tree to plant. And out of the goodness of their heart brought it to us and donated it to us so that we could start the rebuilding process. I mean, I truly believe that out of the ashes came a stronger Rancho Bernardo. We were all in this together.”
This is just an excerpt from Larry’s recollection of his experience. Use our ZGlass app over the opposite page to see and hear Larry’s story in its entirety.
What is the history behind Fired Up Sisters (FUS)? How did the group emerge?
We first met in November 2007 as an emotional support group. The 2003 Cedar Fire women’s group, Burnt Out Sisters, met with us to offer support and pay it forward. We started from local donations and then we partnered with RB United, the long-term recovery center. From there, we wrote a grant to provide the financial support for our efforts as well as counseling services. Meetings were held first at the “Over 21” club at RB Swim & Tennis Club. Counseling staff from the Wildfire Recovery Project or Billy Graham Ministries were on hand in case someone needed them. RB United provided refreshments, and we talked, shared stories, laughed, and sometimes cried.
What have been the most rewarding things about working with families who have lost their homes in the Witch Creek Fires of 2007?
The friendships and close bonds we have formed with each other, as we chose to fulfill our motto: “Make Lemonade out of Lemons.” We were also able to organize activities that included the entire family. Charger games, deep sea fishing trips, hanging out on a boat in the bay for the Parade of Light are some of the highlights, to name a few. We watched families laugh and come together after weeks of not having any time to even talk and say hi.
Tell us what the Fired Up Sisters have done to assist families in need over the past five years.
We started out as mostly an emotional support group but when we found out how severely underinsured so many of us were, we started pursuing group discounts from local merchants, developed a membership in Good360 (an organization that works with nonprofits to provide corporate product donations), and hosted “Come and Get It” events with over $3.5 million in goods distributed. We then proceeded to evolve into a buying group. We went to local businesses and asked if we had our group purchase from them would they give everyone a 15%-25% discount. They were happy to help. They not only gave a discount but hosted after-hour events where they served appetizers and provided very nice raffle prizes. From there, we started receiving donated goods. We had so many donations; we had to rent warehouse space. We held monthly Come and Get It’s (CAGI’s) where fire survivors could come and pick out items for their homes. Anything from flooring, tile light fixtures furniture, decorating accessories and much more.
What does the future hold for the group? Where do you see the group in 5 years? 10 years?
Currently, the organization is moving from the fiscal sponsorship of Gold Coast Foundation which is Renee and David VanHeel’s family foundation to 4Community Solutions. Part of that move is a focus on what the future looks like for Fired Up Sisters. We plan to continue providing support to our members, some of whom are still rebuilding, as well as preparing for opportunities to pay it forward in both San Diego County and other natural disasters in other states across the country.
How is the group funded?
Originally, the group was funded through local donations and grants. As the focus shifted to holding “Come and Get It” events to help underinsured families rebuild, donations constitute the majority of funds raised. All funds raised are used to support the mission of emotional support, paying it forward, and rebuilding assistance.
What events/fundraisers do you have approaching (if any)?
Our last “Come and Get It’ event is being held this September, open to any 2003 or 2007 Wildfire survivors with proof of loss. We will also be holding a potluck dinner in observation of the fifth anniversary of the 2007 wildfires at the Rancho Bernardo Community Park gazebo. Monthly, we host support group meetings at various members’ rebuilt homes – details for all of these are on our website.
Can you tell us an interesting story about the group that most people would not know?
What is the most amazing part of FUS is the people, the women! They lost everything in the fires and immediately came together to help others. There is NO WAY this ever could have happened without EVERYONE volunteering their time and attending meetings. It doesn’t matter if you only attended one meeting or all the meetings; you had an impact on someone. It doesn’t matter if you only had the time to volunteer once or every time, you had an impact on someone. That is what this group is all about – impacting one life at a time. We have NEVER met a group of women and their families that are so selfless and care so much about others!!!! This group has survived and became what it is because of the time of many women along with the support of the men and families encouraging and supporting them in their efforts. Part of paying it forward has involved sharing what we did with other communities impacted by wildfires. We recently funded Bastrop (Austin) Texas with starting their warehouse program with Good360. Bastrop lost 1700 homes last year to a Wild Fire.
Through its Ready Campaign, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) educates and empowers Americans to take some simple steps to prepare for and respond to potential emergencies. Ready asks individuals to do three key things:
• Get an emergency supply kit
• Make a family emergency plan
• Be informed about different types of emergencies that could occur and their appropriate responses.
The US Dept. of Homeland Security encourages all Americans to have some basic supplies on hand in order to survive for at least three days if an emergency occurs. The following is a listing of recommended items that every emergency supply kit should include. It is important to review the list and consider where you live and any unique needs of your family in order to create an appropriate emergency supply kit. Also consider having at least two emergency supply kits, one full kit at home and smaller portable kits in your workplace, vehicle or other places you spend time.
Recommended Items to Include in a Basic Emergency Supply Kit
- Water: One gallon of water per person per day for at least three days, for drinking and sanitation
- Food: At least a three-day supply of non-perishable food
- Battery-powered or hand crank radio and a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert and extra batteries for both
- Flashlight and extra batteries
- First aid kit
- Whistle to signal for help
- Dust mask, to help filter contaminated air and plastic sheeting and duct tape to shelter-in-place
- Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties for personal sanitation
- Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities
- Can opener for food (if kit contains canned food)
Items to Consider Adding to an Emergency Supply Kit:
- Prescription medications and glasses
- Infant formula and diapers
- Pet food and extra water for your pet
- Important family documents such as copies of insurance policies, identification and bank account records in a waterproof, portable container
- Cash or traveler’s checks and change
- Emergency reference material such as a first aid book or information from www.ready.gov.
- Sleeping bag or warm blanket for each person.
- Complete change of clothing including a long sleeved shirt, long pants and sturdy shoes.
- Household chlorine bleach and medicine dropper – When diluted nine parts water to one part bleach, bleach can be used as a disinfectant. Or in an emergency, you can use it to treat water by using 16 drops of regular household liquid bleach per gallon of water. Do not use scented, color safe or bleaches with added cleaners.
- Fire Extinguisher
- Matches in a waterproof container
- Feminine supplies and personal hygiene items
- Mess kits, paper cups, plates and plastic utensils, paper towels
- Paper and pencil
- Books, games, puzzles or other activities for children
Visit 92127magazine.com for additional links and resources for fire safety and preparation!
Date/Time Started: October 21, 2007 at 11:00 a.m.
Area Burned: 197,990 acres
Evacuation sites (All managed by the American Red Cross): Qualcomm Stadium, Escondido High School, Mission Hills High School, Poway High School, Mira Mesa Senior High School, Del Mar Fairgrounds
Structured Destroyed: 1040 homes, 414 outbuildings, 239 vehicles, 70 homes damaged, 25 outbuildings damaged
Injuries: 2 deaths, 39 firefighters, 2 civilians
500,000 – acres of land burned from Santa Barbara County to the U.S.–Mexico border.
2nd – The Witch Creek Fire was the largest of the October 2007 wildfires and surpassed the 1970 Laguna Fire as the second-largest fire in California history.
6,000 – firefighters worked to fight the blazes; they were aided by units of the United States Armed Forces, United States National Guard, almost 3,000 prisoners convicted of non-violent crimes, and 60 firefighters from the Mexican cities of Tijuana and Tecate
1,000,000 – people evacuated
12,000 – people gathered at Qualcomm Stadium during evacuations
1,350 – The four major fires across San Diego County burned nearly 300,000 acres and destroyed or damaged 1,350 homes and 100 businesses.
Founders: Renee VanHeel & Kathryn Homer
Mission: To serve as disaster relief and an emotional support group for those who have lost their homes in the 2007 wildfires.
Members: 600 at its height
Email: FiredUpSisters@San.rr.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Fax: 866-591-1830 (Attn: Fired Up Sisters)
Mailing Address: 12463 Rancho Bernardo Road #272 San Diego CA 92128-2143