By Harry Katcher
Sunday mornings along Thornbush Street and Love Lane at the far east end of the San Diego Country Estates are usually pretty quiet — at least they used to be until the new Cedar Creek Falls trailhead was opened. As previously reported, homeowners near the trailhead were frustrated and angered by the sudden onslaught of hikers arriving early in the morning, parking in their quiet cul-de-sacs and, as some noted, leaving behind their trash.
The parking issue eased only slightly when the designated parking lot at the top of the trailhead finally opened. Most residents were hopeful to see the cars — and hikers — gone. Most, but not all.
This past Father’s Day, while relaxing in their Love Lane home, Philip and Nancy Harding — both seniors — had their quiet Sunday morning routine abruptly interrupted by three very loud hikers banging on their door and using their garden hose. No, they weren’t being rude or obnoxious; they were alerting the homeowners that the couple’s garage was on fire.
“I was standing at the trailhead, stretching, when I heard a pop and noticed what I thought was smoke and flames coming from a garage down the street,” said Susan Willis, owner of SanDiegoHikingTours.com. “I turned around and asked the two hikers behind me, ‘Is that house on fire or am I seeing things?’ None of us knew each other at that point. We just started running toward the fire.”
Unbeknownst to Willis, Mr. Harding had just discovered the fire himself.
“I went outside to get the paper and smelled something,“ said Harding. “I opened up the side door and saw the flames on a box of some cans and rags. The rush of air when I opened the door caused the flames to grow.”
Mr. Harding yelled for his wife to get out while he worked on the flames.
“My wife was calling 9-1-1 and I was trying to move this box of burning cans away from the house,“ continued Harding. “But the heat caused the cans to start popping, the smoke was getting thicker and darker, and the flames were getting bigger. I opened the garage door to move our cars and that’s when I saw our angels.”
The angels Mr. Harding referred to were Francis Pascucci — a Marine from Camp Pendleton, who had just returned from Afghanistan, Kate Collins from New York and Ramona resident Susan Willis.
“Francis ran straight for the garden hose,” said Willis. “I called 9-1-1 as I was running and gave them the location of the house and told the operator the garage was on fire.”
Willis and Collins then alerted the residents.
“Once I saw that Mrs. Harding was safely outside I ran to the back of the house to get another hose, but it fell apart in my hands,” explained Willis. “Francis and Mr. Harding were now working together to douse the flames.”
Pascucci and the homeowner worked together to get the fire under control.
“It was several minutes before they managed to stop the fire from spreading into the house or up to the roof,“ said Willis. “It was pretty scary for awhile there. The flames were going up the sides of the garage walls and I was worried the two cars might ignite or explode.”
The situation could have quickly spiraled out of control and caused a lot more damage and heartache. The Hardings, although they acted quickly, were fortunate that Willis and her companions were in the right place at the right time.
“SanDiegoHikingTours.com guides hikers and tourists alike along a number of San Diego County’s trails. I try to impress upon my clients the need to respect the environment,” said Willis. “And that includes both the trail and where you park. I can only imagine the frustration at having your neighborhood invaded, but it’s sad that all hikers are lumped into one category. I don’t consider someone carrying a case of beer and wearing flips flops a hiker. But I do believe that most hikers are respectful… and some can even come in handy!”
The fire department arrived a few moments later, but the hikers had already headed down the gorge to begin their morning hike, leaving before anyone could thank these hikers-turned-heroes.
Willis scoffs at the notion that she and her fellow hikers are heroes.
“I’m not a hero,“ she laughed. “Maybe Francis, because he’s a Marine. I’m just another Ramona resident. I would think that anyone in that same situation would have done the same thing.”
Harry Katcher is a Ramona resident.