Sunday, December 23, 2007

Empty Lots

Yesterday, my dad led me to Rancho Bernardo on the same route he took in October after the San Diego Fire Department invited him, his fiancee and her daughters back to the neighborhood. They had to evacuate for a couple days because a wildfire had started eating up the houses and hills just a few blocks away from their new house. Luckily, after the fire was contained, my dad's place turned out fully preserved - except for a few burn marks in the wicker chairs on the patio.

Many San Diegans think of Fall as a time when the dry winds of the Santa Ana desert head westward and create the kind of atmosphere where a simple brush fire can grow into a conflagration that crosses a highway and lays waste to millions of dollars worth of property. Naturally, the 60 mph winds of this season fueled the Witch Creek Fire, which consumed Rancho Bernardo. The wind battered the blaze here and there, sending red-hot embers floating through the air and placing them inside giant plastic garbage cans or on top of front yards' hedges. Their appetites thus whetted, the embers hatched fires themselves, whereupon those grew and grew until they could eat houses whole. And that they did.

Dad gestured to blackened pile of branches creeping alongside someone's preserved house. I looked far into the distance at the miles of blackened rolling hills. When we turned onto Duenda Street, he pointed out empty lot after empty lot. "There's one," he said. "There's one. There's one." The lots used to be houses. They had been cleansed of charred material possessions, dreams and aspirations wolfed down by fire. Now, for the most part, they were squares of flat dirt.

Rancho Bernardo, for all its lush shrubbery, is chiefly a land of concrete sidewalks, asphalt roads and tar highways. In part, all of this sprawl saved the neighborhood from total destruction. Today, winding streets with bright green shrubs and block-wide stretches of huge, million-dollar homes dominate. But they are interspersed with these signs of ruin.

Just around the corner from dad's house, we arrived at one of the first new houses, still under construction and right nearby a few empty lots. A moment after I snapped a picture of the new house, an older woman and her daughter walked up to us. The older woman had lost her house in the blaze. Her daughter, a middle-aged woman who wore sweatshirt that said "Brooklyn," which she had bought at an Old Navy in San Diego, did not lose her house.

The daughter said that this new house's owner was the brother of a trainer for San Diego's football team, the Chargers. Apparently, the family got a lot of help. "They want to get it up before Christmas," she said. The doors of the new house were open, and any curious bystanders were welcome to take a look. The mom and daughter had just taken a tour. Dad and I opted not to check it out - even though the new construction was, for all of Rancho Bernardo's seeming affluence, quite a rare sight.

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