There are times to follow orders, and there are times to disobey them. That's how Todd Gabele, 23, felt Sunday morning, Oct. 26, when he awoke to the apocalyptic scenes of the San Diego wildfires. At 9 a.m., when Gabele would normally still have been sleeping off his Saturday night, or perhaps enjoying breakfast at a Pacific Beach café, he could instead be found in his bedroom, with head in hands, watching the news on TV.
“I woke up and looked outside and all I could see was this crazy orange glow,” he said. “Then I turned on my TV and saw the fires raging all over Scripps Ranch and Poway.... All I could think as I watched was whether my parents were safe, then I realized the houses on the screen were a couple of blocks from their street.”
As the smoke thickened overhead, and an eerie red sun shone through the grey skies above the city, Gabele, like many other San Diegans, was left feeling helpless and frustrated. He knew his parents might be in trouble.
“I couldn't get in touch with my parents at all-I had no idea where they were,” he said. “Of course, I hoped that they had evacuated. I couldn't get any answers from anywhere. It was all so confusing.”
Gabele knew one thing: he couldn't just sit and watch as his parents' house burned down. Just as he was contemplating what to do, a call from a student friend in need of help spurred him into action. His friend needed a ride to his mother's house in Poway, where she was panicking as the fires approached.
Gabele soon saw just how intense and frightening these fires could be. An hour later, he and his friend were standing on the roof of the house near Garden Road, watching the flames approaching from what seemed like every side. In an attempt to safeguard the property, they used a garden hose to spray down the brush and wooden fences surrounding them. Then, as the fire marched down the hill and began to consume houses just a block away, they knew it was time to get out of there, and retreated to the relative safety of a nearby hill.
All the while, Gabele was thinking how he might reach his parents' house in Scripps Ranch and do something to protect their property. At about 1 p.m., he received a call from another friend, a neighbor of his parents who had managed to get back up to his own property in Scripps Ranch. From the report he was given, things were looking really bad, and Gabele knew he had to make another hard decision-whether or not to head right over to his parents' house, at the heart of the fire.
The thought of his friend facing the flames alone hardened his resolve, and he got in his truck and headed off.
“Once I knew he was up there fighting the fires around our house on his own, I knew I had to get up there and help him, even though the police were advising us not to,” Gabele said.
Avoiding roadblocks, Gabele somehow found a route up to his parents' property. The scenes he faced on the way were terrifying, and at times he was hardly able to see the road ahead through the smoke. As he approached his destination on Birch Bluff Avenue, his worst fears were confirmed.
“Houses on both sides of the street were burning,” he said. “It was hellish, I was driving down the street to the house and all I could see was walls of fire on each side.”
Meeting up with his neighbor, Gabele spent the afternoon rushing between the two houses and putting out small, sporadic fires as they sprang up. Using water from the family's swimming pool, and wearing ski goggles, but with no masks for protection against breathing in the acrid smoke, they also used shovels to pile dirt on top of bushes and fences that caught fire. At one point, a wooden trellis bordering the house went up in flames, and the two men just managed to extinguish it before the building caught.
“Everything was on fire,” he said, “even the houses that had burned right down were still alight because the gas was still on. The houses each side of ours were engulfed, and huge pieces of flaming debris were landing all over the place. It was scary!”
While, officially, the two men should not have been there at all, once the large numbers of policemen patrolling the streets had verified that the pair were helping fight the fire, and not looting, they gave them free reign to keep the fire at bay as best they could.
Returning to the scene a few days later, the emotion that coursed through Gabele on that afternoon was evident in his manner and his speech. Standing in a row of charred, blackened houses, he reflected on the week's events:
“This used to be my neighborhood, I knew all of these people and now they've lost their homes. They've lost everything. About 30 houses have burned down on this street, I'm just glad I could do something to help.”
Asked if he regretted putting himself in such danger, Gabele answered with a wry smile. “Not at all, I wouldn't have done anything differently. I'm almost ashamed to say that it was actually all quite exciting. It's not every day you get to save a house, and I'm proud of what I did.” ©
... Chris Heaney would not
by Alana Causey
For Chris Heaney, facing a wildfire “is like war-the violence of it, the destruction. The wind is blowing right at you. The embers shooting at you like bullets.”
Last Sunday, the day the Cedar fire first showed San Diego County that it meant business, Heaney, 39, confronted the raging blaze as he declined to follow the advice of the police and helped save his close friend's home.
Heaney's harrowing experience began when, his friend, Kelly Gee, brought his wife and three children over to Heaney's home Sunday afternoon after authorities announced the evacuation of the Santee area. Instead of staying with his family at Heaney's residence, Gee decided to return to his house in Tierrasanta, adjacent to Mission Trails Park, to retrieve more belongings. Worried about her husband's safety, Gee's wife asked Heaney to quickly bring her husband back.
“After [Gee] left, his wife, in tears, said, ‘He's going to try to save the house.' So, obviously, I had to go out there and get him,” Heaney explained.
As Heaney reached the Tierrasanta neighborhood, he became aware of the fire's intensity and power. “With smoke and clouds, it just went on forever,” he said, “and I thought, How the heck did that thing get so big? It was just blazing everywhere.”
Soon after Heaney arrived, the fire's raw intrigue gave way to something else, something menacing, as the blaze cascaded over the hills toward the nest of homes.
Heaney would do hands-on battle with the fire, but not before expressing some serious reservations: “I said to Kelly, ‘We're not going anywhere near this. It's a little hairy.' He said, ‘Yeah, it's dangerous, but I've got to help my [neighbors].... [They've] got a pool we can jump in if we have to.' ”
With that, Heaney grabbed a shovel to flatten brush and carve out a 5-foot clearing to keep the fire at bay. In addition to Heaney and about 10 other neighborhood homeowners, 10 to 15 young adults arrived at the scene to help.
With the fire fast approaching, deputies rushed in, urging immediate evacuation. They said it was “mandatory.”
“I said to the policeman, ‘Is it illegal? Can we stay here without getting arrested?'” Heaney said. “He just shook his head without answering, grabbed his walkie-talkie, and said, ‘Can I get an ambulance up here? There are some probable casualties.' That was scary. It sent shivers down my spine.”
Throughout the group's confrontation with the fire, that policeman stood by with the ambulance, ready to step in should the fire take anyone down.
As Heaney stood ground against the fire with the group, which had by now dwindled to only a handful, it was pride that kept him there as the fire roared nearer: “When its time to retreat, I'm thinking that Kelly won't go. But I'm thinking, I'm retreating. The only thing I don't want to do is, I don't want to be the first one [to leave].... I'll be the second one, no problem. As soon as one guy goes, I'm out of there.”
Before he even had time to notice whether or not others were backing off, the fire suddenly ambushed him. “The next thing I knew, it came right where I was at. It's racing at me.... And it's loud. You can't imagine the volume.... [And] it was as high as palm trees. It hit a little brush and it was gigantic.
“Then it happens,” Heaney said. “The fire got so close that I breathed in the smoke. My eyes burned like tear gas hit them, and my lungs felt like I inhaled liquid fire or something. It put me to my knees.”
After his debilitating inhalation, Heaney buried his face in the dirt in hopes of finding clean air. Fortunately the fire by then had hit the 5-foot clearing dug by the group. “After I fell into the dirt, I was so disoriented,” he said. “There must have been some change in the wind when the fire hit our clearing-and the guys were spraying the fire with water-because the next thing I knew, the fire had died down quite a bit.”
In an hour's worth of amateur firefighting, the crew suffered only minor injuries-scrapes, cuts, smoke inhalation. Without a mask and wearing only shorts and a t-shirt, Heaney said he felt lucky to escape with only smoke inhalation and singed body hair.
He said the group's risk saved the little neighborhood of 15 to 20 homes. “If you look on the map [of the burned territory], there is a little divot out of the fire line. That's where we were,” Heaney said.
In retrospect, however, Heaney says his defiance of police evacuation orders was stupid. “Now you understand how idiots like me get killed trying to fight this stuff because they think, Oh, if it comes, I'll just jump in the pool,” Heaney said. “But that's not what gets you. You inhale that smoke and it just paralyzes you.”
Faced with the same situation again, he added, “I would never do it.”