A horse on the side of the road in agricultural Fallbrook is not an unusual sight. A massive Clydesdale chomping on grass in the parking lot of Fallbrook High School definitely is. Scotty, a 12-year-old former carriage horse, was just one of the evacuees waiting to skip town in the wake of the three-fingered Rice Canyon fire that blazed through the area on Monday.
Aaron Marks, Scotty's owner, lives just up the road from the high school. He doesn't have a trailer for Scotty--he's never needed one--so he walked the horse down to what he was told was a local evacuation site. As the fire's direction shifted erratically, however, all of Fallbrook faced a mandatory evacuation, and suddenly Scotty didn't have a ride.
“He's too big,” Marks said. “We're trying to find an empty trailer, but most of them are too small.”
Marks and his 16-year-old daughter Kristina were waiting next to their SUV--crammed with six freaked-out cats and two panting dogs--while Marks' wife and Kristina's boyfriend packed up a few more belongings at the house.
Kristina was a little worried about her three goats. “We wanted to put them in the truck,” she said, “but they were too fat to lift up.”
Her family was woken by a neighbor's call in the middle of the night. At that point, the fire was in nearby Rainbow. They weren't too concerned at first, thinking there was no way it would jump the freeway. By Monday afternoon, however, a new fire was inching uncomfortably close to their home. So they started packing.
Marks tried to saddle up Scotty, but the horse spooked and ran a half-mile down the road before neighbors corralled him. At Fallbrook High, Scotty snorted anxiously, unnerved by the smoke in the air. He perked up when a pickup pulling a large horse trailer turned in the lot. There wasn't enough room for oversize Scotty in the two-animal rig, though.
“We'll come back for you,” promised the driver with a reassuring wave.
“If I'm not here, I'll be walking Scotty down Mission,” responded Marks. “I'll walk him all the way to Oceanside if I have to.”
A couple of miles from the high school at Live Oak Park on Reche Road, police blockades shooed drivers away. Though no flames were visible--the historic park is in the valley of rolling hills--further up the road the smoke was thick and menacing and the furnace-like heat in the air announced the fire's presence. The wind, rare in its high-speed force, whipped up soot and debris.
Patrol cars splattered with the pink ectoplasm of airplane drops sped down the road toward the fire, as did the occasional fire truck and utility van. Also hauling tail that way were a jeep and two trucks filled with empty pet cages and young men and women whose faces were hidden like bandits behind colorful bandanas. They'd scrawled “Animal Rescue” on the sides of the vehicles.
One man in a pickup drove somewhat frantically in the opposite direction. He stopped to check on this reporter's safety.
“You should get out of here, Miss,” he said. “It's scary that way. I'm getting out of here!”
John Zepeda and his “right-hand man” Joe Ellis didn't seem particularly scared. They loitered for at least an hour on the dirt shoulder in front of the park, T-shirts covering their noses and mouths. Zepeda, whose two luxury sports cars were covered in ash, owns a home up on Calle Tecolotlan, which he very reluctantly left behind.
“I pulled him out,” Ellis explained. “He wanted to stay and protect his house.”
Zepeda admitted waiting until he could see the fire from his windows before evacuating. Instead of leaving Fallbrook like most residents, he was holding out for eye-to-mouth news of his house's safety. Two passing squad cars had given him conflicting stories, so he had no clue what was going on. But he said he'd wait by the side of that smoky road until he knew or was driven back by the fire.
A few miles to the west, on a hill behind a church parking lot, several families stood by their packed cars, watching the smoke creep along indecisively. Among them was John Barton, whose property off Reche Road has a gurgling creek and centuries-old oak trees. Barton had soaked everything in water and made sure his elderly neighbors had gotten out safely. He wasn't sure where to go now.
Barton said his siblings had already lost two houses in the day's fires and worried that his would be next.
“I've lived here for 20 years,” he sighed. “It's never been this close a call.”
At a 7-Eleven on Main Street in the center of town--one of the only businesses open--Lea Barton (no relation to John) said the same thing.
“I've lived here since 1958, and this is the first time we've ever had to evacuate. I remember in the sixth grade, there were fires all over and the sun was blood red--we still didn't evacuate.”
Barton packed up her genealogy research and her grandfather's banjo. She and her two dogs waited at the convenience store for a friend who was bringing her own two dogs. The two women planned to follow the official departure route through Camp Pendleton to San Clemente.
“This is a really hard thing to do by yourself,” Barton said.
In parking lots throughout the center of town, people huddled in cars--eating, talking on the phone and, in some cases, napping. The traffic to get out was too daunting for many, and with the fire nowhere in sight (at this point not even the smoke could be seen), many looked ready to spend the night where they were.Margaret Ozor, a bubbly, blond Polish woman with a thick accent, had pulled into one lot hoping to find a bathroom. She thought her cat might also have to pee, though she wasn't sure what to do about that. She did know that she had no intention of sitting in the mass exodus of bumper-to-bumper cars.
“I'm from a communist country,” she quipped. “I don't like lines!”
Ozor had stowed a pillow and blanket in her car and thought she and her cat might stay put until morning. “I've got some food for the cat and some water for me,” she said, then smiled broadly and poked her plump belly. “I don't need any food… though I did buy some chocolate when I found out about the fire.”