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Vineyard Owner Shares Her 2007 Fire Story

Elaine Lyttleton recalls how she and her partner, a retired firefighter, fought the Witch Creek Fire from their home with shovels and hoses.

Ramona Remembers is a new column here on Ramona Patch that will help share the stories of residents affected by the Witch Creek Fires in 2007. With the fifth anniversary upon us, it's important to share our experiences: the good, the bad and the inspiring.

We've got emails from family members who stayed behind to protest their homes, accounts from residents who lost their homes, updates from the water district and fire department on changes since the fires and even stories of relief efforts.

Here, Ramona resident, vineyard owner and found of the Ramona H.E.A.R.T. Mural Project Elaine Lyttleton gives her account of the Witch Creek Fire five years ago.

Lyttleton said she wrote this story for her friends and for her insurance company right after the fires.

Thanks for sharing your story, Elaine.

On Sunday October 21, 2007 Norm and I awoke to fierce Santa Ana winds. At about 2 p.m. we lost power, and observed a huge smoke column rising to the east. At 4 p.m. an Anza-Borrego State Park Ranger drove into our area and informed us of a voluntary evacuation advisory because of an approaching wild fire. At 4:30 p.m. the same Ranger returned with a mandatory evacuation order.

Norm is a retired firefighter, with more than 30 years experience and he immediately decided that he was not going to leave, but would stay to protect our assets. He had several very good reasons to be confident in our safety, so I stayed with him, though I did hook up my little Teardrop travel trailer to my truck, and put important items in it, in case I had to make a dash for safety.  We moved both my and Norm’s truck away from structures and trees.

When we bought this 5.75 acres in Ramona with the intent to live here, plant a vineyard and establish a small winery, the only insurance company we could find who would insure us was Farmers Insurance. The company with whom I’d had all my insurance with for nearly 30 years, with whom I’d never had a claim, would not insure property in the fire prone areas of Ramona and Julian. Gene Forsyth, a personal friend for many years, who is also a Farmers Insurance Agent arranged for our insurance coverage, with the following requisite: CLEAR ALL BRUSH FROM WITHIN 200 FEET OF ALL STRUCTURES, INCLUDING YOUR NEIGHBORS PROPERTY IF NECESSARY.

Soon after we moved in July of 2006, we enlisted the help of a friend who is a land use planner to track down the owner of the property east of us (80 acres with cows grazing). We proceeded to clear brush on our own property and with their permission, also cleared some of theirs. As we continued to prepare the land for planting a vineyard, much more brush was cleared, resulting in a pile in the middle of the field about 100 feet long by 50 feet wide and 20 feet tall. We then hired Antonio and his men with two chippers to reduce the brush pile to a large mulch pile.

We then constructed a 24-foot tower and placed a 500 gallon water tank on top of it as the basis for a gravity-feed irrigation system for the vineyard.  Little did we know at the time that when the power goes out rendering the well pump useless, that 400 of the 500 gallons would be crucial to being able to put out small spot fires as they start! Norm joined all the garden hoses together and hooked them up to the tower tap. He also pulled out two shovels from the shed. We were ready.

We dialed the portable radio to KOGO 600 AM radio and watched the ensuing fire storm from our front porch. As Sunday October 21st turned into Monday October 22nd, we continued to watch the progress of the fire. It raced from east to west down Highway 78 to the north of us and down Old Julian Highway to the south. About 2 a.m. it had gone by, and we thought we had dodged the bullet.  Norm went to lie down, with his clothes and boots on, and I sat up to keep watch. About 45 minutes later I woke Norm up because of a red glow approaching from the east.

The fire had doubled back and was racing up the canyon to the south of us. We proceeded, with our shovels to patrol both our south and east property lines, and the area behind a neighbor’s house. All the neighbors had evacuated except us. About 3:30 a.m. the fire turned up another canyon to the east of us, and the winds, now gusting to about 80 mph, were pushing ash, smoke, embers and burning brush toward us.

While Norm manned the hose on the east side of the house, I ran around with the shovel, dousing small flare-ups around the rest of the area in the vicinity of the house and shed. Strictly speaking, we don’t think any fired would have started that would have threatened our structures, since there was no brush nearby, but we weren’t taking any chances, and we also operate under an old saying that “Action cures fear”. After about 45 minutes of intense action, and at 5:15 a.m. we determine it might be safe enough to sleep for awhile.

As daylight dawned, our neighborhood looked pretty good. Only one house was lost, a manufactured home at the end of Elizabeth Lane near the canyon and brush. Another house was threatened – the one with “habitat” all around it, but the fire department saved it. That was only time we saw fire crews in this area by the way. We drove into town, passing incredible destruction and losses of home, cars, barns and equipment.

The only place open to get coffee (our priority) was the Stars gas station that had stayed open all night. The only other store open in town was Albertson’s.  We went in and talked to the manager, Bill. He lives in Escondido and had fought his way back up to Ramona while the town was being evacuated, and with two other staff people had kept the store open all night. He had evacuees in the parking lot and let them use the restrooms and gave them water. During the night, he’d fed 140 firefighters, cleaning out his deli counter and bakery.  Since we had no power, we asked him if we could box up and bring our frozen food into his walk-in freezer, and he enthusiastically said, “Absolutely!”

We returned home to walk our property and found that the only fire-related damage was a section of the plastic rail fence that had melted from the radiant heat – not from flames since Norm had cleared the brush from the area of the fence line too.  We sustained much more wind damage:

  • carport tarps were shredded
  • the steel frames for the carports were bent beyond redemption
  • the shingles were torn from the roof of the shed
  • the three compost bins were disassembled
  • the grow tubes protecting the grapes vines were blown off and the vines were beaten on the ground by the winds
  • a front section of fence was blown down
  • and debris littered the west fence line where the wind had pushed it

Over the next several days, still without power, and rationing the remaining 100 gallons of water in the tower tank, we proceed with repairs. The back melted sections of fence are not replaced, and the remaining carport has no tarp on it, but the shed roof and front fence are fixed. The shredded tarps and bent frame of one carport are loaded in Norm’s truck to take to the dump and the compost bins are reassembled. After taking the tractor around the neighborhood, traveling about a quarter mile west, we were able to round up all the grow tubes, and put them back on the vines and tied them all up securely.

The Navy came by and gave us two cases of bottled drinking water, which was the first time it really hit me that we were indeed disaster victims.
 
SDG&E did not get power restored to us until 3 weeks later, November 10th.  Our friend Anthony had brought us a generator. We had to move it down to the well pump to get it to operate the pump to refill the water tank. Then we’d move it back up to the house to run for awhile so we could get hot water for a quick shower (and to watch Dancing with the Stars)! The first time we got the tank refilled, we immediately watered the grape vines, and the young landscape trees.

That Saturday also brought my daughter Tammy up the hill with McDonalds burgers, fries and chocolate milk shakes! What a gal. No restaurants or fast food places had been open in town, since while they had power, the water was unusable. I washed a week’s worth of dishes by hand, baked potatoes in the smoldering mulch pile, and cooked steaks on the camp stove. We had lots of candles, and I was still a long way from running out of wine!

The camp stove was set up on the front porch and there were four ice chests in the dining room. The house is still filthy, full of dust and ash that the wind forced through the edges of the double paned windows. Since the power came back up I have been laboriously detailing each room, which will take several more weeks.

So, while all of the neighbors have had to throw away freezers full of food, languished in hotels down the hill, or have to rebuild their homes and their lives, we just camped out and pretty much did for ourselves. And alas, we have no claim to file with Farmers Insurance.

As for the Petite Syrah vines, after that watering, and in spite of the beating they took from the wind when their protective grow tubes were blown off, they have had a spurt of new growth and are looking fine!

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