A Glimpse of Palomar Mountain, and a Peek at Mortality

Updated 4:22 a.m.:

There were two things strange about the Harrah’s Rincon
Casino and Resort in Valley
Center
shortly after
midnight this morning. One: Though blasts of Kelly Clarkson could be heard from
inside the well-lit resort, not a soul was in sight. And two: Just past the
bright, lighted Harrah’s sign, you could see even brighter flames making their
way across Palomar
Mountain
.

We, the two Guardian
staff members — one armed with a camera, the other with an official press pass
— had come here to catch a glimpse of the Poomacha fire, yet another blaze
that had broken out earlier on Tuesday. By 7:30 p.m., the 218 firefighters
doing battle against the blaze had managed to contain exactly 0 percent of it,
with 20,000 scorched acres and 50 destroyed homes left in its wake. There were
rumors that the Poomacha blaze ran the risk of merging with the much larger
Witch fire, which had shut down parts of Poway, Del Mar, Rancho Bernardo and
Rancho Santa Fe the night before. We wanted to see it for our selves.

We came to Harrah’s because that’s where "the
action" was, according to the police officer who was blockading the
entrance to Highway 78. There was little going on, the officer told us, and he
predicted that evacuees from the area would soon be around to come back.

But driving up Palomar
Mountain
on Highway 76,
we saw just how unpredictable the fire could be. On each side of the road,
small hotspots burned on the ground. And suddenly, we were just 20 feet from a
giant wall of fire, hot ambers barreling toward us. Screaming, we cut a U-turn
and made our way back. As we drove, the powerful Santa Ana gushes shook our Jeep, and branches
and other vegetation fell on the road.

We caught up with a firefighting supervisor a ways away.
Surveying, he told us, in case the winds changed and the fire took off in another
direction. Fortunately, we saw no residential structures around. After spending
several minutes on the frontline, talking with firefighters, we were told
conditions were too dangerous and that it was time for us to turn back.

The problem was that we didn’t know which way back was —
and our portable GPS was of little use, taking us down abandoned, dusty paths,
with less than a quarter tank of gas left.

Desperate, we called our editor, begging him to harness the
power of Google Maps to rescue us from the inferno that was enveloping us on
both sides of the road.

We were already panicking, imagining running out of gas with
no one else in sight, when we finally reached a main road — and got pulled
over by the sheriff for running a stop sign.

"Don’t think you can outrun me in a Jeep. Even if I
can’t get you in my four-by-four, I have all of the federal Marshals I need,"
he told us. "The only reason I’m not going to give you a ticket is that I
have more important priorities tonight."

Shaken, first by imminent destruction, and then an
overzealous rural cop — and having survived both — we made our way back, a
little part of our own mortality rediscovered. Fires tend to do that.

Check back later for a video of the Fight for Palomar Mountain, to be posted by 11 a.m.

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