Rebuilding homes, rebuilding lives
By Karen Brainard
Five years have passed since the Witch fire roared into Ramona on Oct. 21, 2007, during a spell of hot, dry Santa Ana winds, and many Ramonans are still rebuilding their lives from the devastation.
Information on how many homes were lost in Ramona and how many have been rebuilt was not available from the county. Instead, the county has broken down that data by fires and reports that the Witch fire destroyed
609 primary structures, and of those 318 have been rebuilt or permitted.
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection separates the building losses in the Witch fire by areas and reports that 581 primary structures were destroyed in the unincorporated area, which includes Ramona.
According to Cal Fire, the Witch fire burned 197,990 acres from Santa Ysabel to Rancho Santa Fe and destroyed 1,125 residential structures.
The Witch fire started about 12:35 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 21, in the Witch Creek area east of Ramona and immediately threatened structures. By 2:22 p.m., Cal Fire reported that the Witch fire had grown to 3,000 acres and was moving toward southeastern Ramona.
During the next few hours, the fire continued to spread, winds increased and shifted, and evacuations went from advisory to mandatory for all of Ramona, resulting in traffic jams as residents tried to flee town.
Conrad Young was able to avoid the traffic jams and made his way out on Highland Valley Road to the 15 Freeway at 2 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 22.
Young, who has not yet rebuilt, lives on the west side of town on a narrow, winding road off Highland Valley Road.
Five years ago, he had submitted plans to the county for a home on his pad that overlooks San Pasqual Valley. At the site, he had an 1,100-square-foot shop that he was living in until his house was built.
When he heard the Santa Ana winds and learned of the Witch fire on that Sunday, Young said he tried to protect his shop and collect items.
“I wasn’t prepared and I knew it,” he said.
In his shop he built oceanographic equipment and had a project ready to ship out.
The 64-year-old man said the news for his area was “pathetic.”
“I had no idea what was going on,” he said.
When he heard on the radio that a fire started in San Pasqual Valley, Young said he knew it was time to leave.
“I wasn’t going to chance it,” he said.
At 2 a.m., Young said many of his neighbors were still at home. On his drive down Highland Valley Road in the middle of the night, Young said he saw a couple of fire engines but encountered no problems driving out.
“I was lucky,” he said.
When he returned the following Thursday and saw his shop destroyed and machines charred, Young said he was still optimistic.
“Over time my sense of optimism has kind of taken a hit,” he admitted.
Young did not have insurance because, he said, it was very expensive. He noted that the county considered his shop as his dwelling, which allowed him to obtain a trailer through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). When FEMA removed the 60-foot trailer after 18 months, Young bought a fifth wheel to live in, and it continues to be his home today.
While he received some monetary assistance from the state and help from charities, the physics major, who has experience building oceanographic equipment, had trouble finding a job in the 2008 economy. Through people he knew, he was able to pick up some extra jobs and then bought used equipment for his shop, which was reduced to metal storage containers that survived the fire but were burned inside.
“It sure makes life hard when you don’t have a complete machine shop,” he said, noting that each project takes about three times longer than before the fire.
He hopes to start working on his house plans soon, realizing that some county regulations have probably changed over the past several years. He also plans to fire-proof his house as much as possible and do what he can on his property to protect it.
“I’m doing most of the work myself,” Young said, adding that he will probably buy insurance as long as he can afford it.
“I’m happy to be here,” he said, looking out at his views and boulder-strewn natural setting.
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