I'm from San Diego County, a seaside town called Carlsbad. It's a beautiful area and basically the quintessential San Diego County town.
Four years ago, when the Cedar Creek fires broke out, school was canceled for a week due to the smoke in the air. Our area was not directly threatened by the fires, but it was still a pretty big deal. If you have never been in a town near a wildfire, it's pretty nasty. The air constantly smells like a campfire, it's difficult to breathe, and ash just covers everything: cars, houses, trees.
On Monday, I received a text message from a friend saying the smoke in the air was really bad. I was surprised because all I'd heard about were the fires in Malibu, which is about 100 miles away. Another friend, who goes to school at the University of California-Irvine, said Sunday night that the fires were less than 5 miles away, but the winds changed so fast, he didn't need to evacuate.
About 2 p.m., my mom called me saying that a massive cloud of smoke was heading for Carlsbad. It felt like a hurricane outside, she said. The Santa Ana winds the night before were 60 mph, and it was about 85 degrees outside. For San Diego this time of year, that's hot. Kids from schools in the surrounding area were dismissed early in preparation for evacuation. This affected my little brother, an eighth-grader, and friends from high school.
My friend Kevin Gajewski called and he said he'd received many phone calls from family in the area saying they'd been ordered to evacuate. He explained the entire feeling, with a note of sarcasm: "Yeah, I feel like it's the apocalypse. The sky is orange, smoke is falling everywhere, San Diego is basically hell. I never thought I would say that."
Meanwhile, another friend, Kevin Plowman, called me. He lives in the same neighborhood as my family. It was chilling to hear him say he was packing and his family was getting ready to leave.
"The air is so smoky and you can't even see the sun. I can't believe it's only 4 in the afternoon. I have no idea what to pack, and I don't know exactly where we are going to go," he said.
All of these conversations were just surreal. My mom had all her picture albums packed, and my friends were just sitting around waiting for an official call to tell them to evacuate.
My family never left, only because Interstate 5 was a parking lot and it would take about three hours to get somewhere that is only 40 miles away. San Diego traffic normally is bad, but Monday night it was unbearable.
Fortunately, Carlsbad was only under a voluntary evacuation Monday night, and it never became mandatory. In fact, Oceanside and Carlsbad were the only towns in the area that were under a voluntary evacuation. My mom said she could see the flames from the fires from our backyard. The fires were less than 15 miles away.
Since then, I've been in touch with everyone, and thankfully, no one I know has lost any property and everyone's family is safe. But, when I watch the news it's so surreal to see Qualcomm Stadium as an evacuation shelter. Rancho Bernardo, Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe, Encinitas, Solana Beach - all those areas ravaged by fire. For me, it's like watching something like Hurricane Katrina, except this time I know all about the places that are affected.
Monday night was the worst night for my family. But today (Wednesday), they say the winds are dying town. Unfortunately, no one is sleeping well, and headaches are common from all the smoke in the air. Everyone is asked to stay inside and avoid going outside under any circumstances. Many businesses are closed, and school is closed until next Monday.
It's surreal to watch the area I call home at the center of such chaos on the evening news. Moreover, it's hard to listen to my friends describe this experience on the phone as they say, "I've never seen snow here, but outside, it looks like snow. Everything is covered, but not by snow. This time, it's by ash."