Rebuilding homes, rebuilding lives

Conrad Young stands by a used drill press that he bought after the 2007 fire and stores in a burned-out storage container that serves as his shop. Young lost his shop and machinery in the Witch fire. In the distance looms a tree that never recovered from the fire. Sentinel photo/Karen Brainard
Conrad Young stands by a used drill press that he bought after the 2007 fire and stores in a burned-out storage container that serves as his shop. Young lost his shop and machinery in the Witch fire. In the distance looms a tree that never recovered from the fire. Sentinel photo/Karen Brainard

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.

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