His friends call him Zeke-he's not sure why-but this self-described "old hippie" has been waylaid in the smoke-clogged heart of urban San Diego since he left his home in Ramona Saturday afternoon, Oct. 25, to pick up a truck part in the South Bay.
"I got down here right at 4:30, and they close at 5," he would say later, "but they wouldn't let me in."
He waited overnight in his van to get the part. The next morning, while listening to National Public Radio, an announcer cut into the regular programming to talk about fire in San Diego County.
"I knew about the fire up there at Camp Pendleton," he said, referring to a blaze that had started last week, "and I thought that was what all the smoke was about."
But he soon learned the report was talking about a new fire in Ramona. "It was a shock," said Zeke, who has lived off and on in Ramona since 1963, "but I knew it couldn't be Ramona that was on fire. Ramona doesn't burn."
Asked to explain, Zeke pointed out that the old-timers and folks familiar with living in the county's backcountry know full well how important it is to keep vegetation cleared away from homes and other structures. But just outside of town to the southeast, where urban flatlanders years ago came to build large homes in an area now known as San Diego Country Estates, such lessons often go unheeded.
"It's simple really," he continued. "You cut the brush down to grass level, take a blow torch to it and follow right behind with a water hose. But the rich folk, they pay to have that stuff cut back. Not everyone, though, and the brush had pretty well grown up out there and down in Black Canyon and Wildcat Canyon.
"If they cut it back, then it won't burn. It's an easy lesson-can't burn if you don't have fuel."
Clearly, there will be lots of lessons learned-again-and even more fingers pointed once the smoke clears and the flames die down for what is now considered the worst fire disaster in San Diego County history.
The numbers alone are staggering-more than 300,000 acres burned, nearly twice the land area torched in the Laguna blaze of 1970, which had been considered the county's worst inferno before last weekend. With roughly 2.17 million acres countywide, that means one of every seven acres had been scorched by press time.
And with the land went more than 900 homes (300-plus in Scripps Ranch alone), at least a dozen human lives as well as untold scores of animal lives, both wild and domestic. Tens of thousands of county residents have been forced from their homes, while more than 3,000 firefighters have fought a raging uphill battle with little or no sleep for days.
Radio station Mighty 1090-AM reported that firefighters were threatening to walk off the front lines because they had not eaten for half a day, but that report could not be confirmed.
County Assessor Gregory Smith has placed a preliminary price tag of $200 million on the devastation, but that amount will likely climb as fires continue to rage and while city and county officials begin to sift through the disaster.
Evacuation centers have been set up throughout the reeling county, and Zeke found himself gravitating toward the Balboa Park Activity Center on Park Boulevard, where the local chapter of the American Red Cross had set up its main shelter.
While many fire survivors had been told to find respite at Qualcomm Stadium, folks looking for true shelter had to look elsewhere. Said one volunteer, "I guess Qualcomm was picked because everyone knows where the stadium is."
But at the activity center, fire victims trickled in during the first few days of the disaster. Some had come simply to take a shower and grab a quick meal. Others came to sleep. Still others came to look for lost family members.
One park ranger, who did not give her name, put it plainly: "We have medical triage, we have shelter, we have showers, we have food. We have bedding. We have everything anybody would need."
The ranger said the Balboa Park facility had already received adequate donations by late Monday morning, and she was suggesting that people wanting to donate items either take them to another shelter at Mira Mesa High School or check out the local Red Cross website at sdarc.org to find out what's needed.
From the early stages of the multi-pronged fire, which has torn through areas from Valley Center in the north to Otay Lakes near the Mexico border, confusion has reigned. As of press time, numerous residents still were uncertain about the fate of their homes, while a shift in Santa Ana winds back to San Diego's more common offshore flow had forced flames back through areas already consumed by fire and toward communities like Julian and Palomar Mountain.
Local politicians have done little to calm residents' nerves while holding numerous press conferences pointing fingers at each other or donning canary-yellow faux firefighters jackets with their names embroidered on them.
At different stages, San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy has urged residents: not to panic; to continue watching reports on television; to stay home from work; and to conserve water. For the most part, citizens seemed to be complying. As of Tuesday, schools, courts and government offices were predominantly dark.
Meanwhile, home-improvement stores were running out of dust masks, the apparent fashion statement of the moment. While health officials were uncertain about the value of such low-cost remedies to combat the ash and gunk swirling around the sepia-toned skies, residents as far away as Ocean Beach were seen donning the white-paper dust blockers.
Some residents joked that it looked like San Diego had been hit with an outbreak of SARS, but no one was laughing when Gov. Gray Davis, upon visiting the smoldering ruins of Scripps Ranch, equated it with a "war zone."
One thing about San Diego-there never seems to be a shortage of volunteers when tragedy strikes. Hundreds of people with bottled water, fresh-baked cookies and even a woman with a large bowl of homemade spaghetti ventured down to the Balboa Park shelter to pitch in as they could.
A woman named Jan, who brought a large tin of oatmeal-raisin cookies she had just made, said she was doing her part because the homes of her brother and sister had survived the fire. "It just made me feel so good that I thought I'd try to share that good feeling," she said.
Zeke, on the other hand, offered his own tongue-in-chubby-cheek theory on the fires, which, he later learned, his home had escaped."It's God's way of saying San Diego shouldn't have Monday Night Football."