10 years ago: Remembering the wrath of Witch Creek Fire

Ten years ago on Oct. 22, 2007, the Witch Creek Fire roared through Rancho Santa Fe, resulting in the loss of 37 Rancho Santa Fe homes (including 21 in the Covenant) and two homes in Fairbanks Ranch. The fire overall burned 197,990 acres and destroyed 1,125 residential structures in San Diego County. The following is an excerpt from Rancho Santa Fe Review articles written by reporter Ian S. Port.

The Witch Creek Fire had moved from the backcountry into Ramona, into Poway and across I-15 by the morning of Monday, Oct. 22. By that evening, with the help of the frenzying Santa Anas, the fire was burning in Rancho Santa Fe.

A branch of the fire had run from Lake Hodges into the San Dieguito riverbed, where it raced toward homes on the eastern side of Rancho Santa Fe. The fire moved so fast that it didn’t completely burn the vegetation that transported it. But once in the river bottom, homes at the tops of nearby hillsides in Rancho Del Rio and the Covenant made easy targets.

Zumaque street lies on the far southeast corner of the Rancho Santa Fe Covenant: a steep, downhill-sloping single lane that ends close to the San Dieguito river. The homes on the west side of the street sit high on the edge of a hilltop, overlooking the river and mountain areas to the east. Six of them were the Witch Creek Fire’s first victims in the Covenant. Two other homes on Zumaque were damaged. It would be the hardest-hit street in the area.

The fire raced through the Covenant Monday night, spreading through trees and embers catapulted from high-rise walls of fire. The high winds created the possibility that the flames could end up nearly anywhere.

From Zumaque the flames moved both north and south, engulfing homes on El Vuelo, Via Monalex, Las Cuestas, Las Colinas and other streets. But the southerly winds prevailed, pushing the Witch Creek fire straight for the RSF Village.

Duncan Hadden’s family had owned The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe for 50 years. So when the call for evacuation came on Monday, Hadden didn’t leave — he set up shop in a central room of his business and waited. When winds freshened around midnight, the fire was headed for The Inn — and him.

“At 3 a.m. I was sitting in the living room of The Inn seeing these flames coming over the tops of the eucalyptus trees in the park — they were that tall — and all the hot embers coming into town,” Hadden remembered. “The front lawn was just sparklers of ashes and burning embers … I didn’t dare get closer than here, but you could hear propane tanks exploding from down there, eucalyptus trees exploding from the sap, it was just unbelievable.”

Standing alone on the lawn of his family’s Inn, wearing ski goggles to see through the smoke while watching towers of flame shooting into the sky, Hadden feared the worst.

He was seeing the fire at Camino Selva, a small street off of Via De Santa Fe less than a block from Stump’s Market and the Mobile station in the village. With flames so close to the middle of Rancho Santa Fe, the firefighters had a choice: work like hell to stop the fire there, or see the village and perhaps a large swath of the Ranch in smoldering ruin by sunrise. So the fire crews — many of whom were slaving through their second straight night of battling blazes around Southern California — turned their hoses straight up in the air.

“They caught their embers and at least got water on them — and then God was with us, because they didn’t land on a bad spot,” RSF Fire District Director Jim Ashcraft remembered.

For Hadden, the firefighters’ valiant efforts and upturned hoses also proved miraculous — his family business and the village it relied on were saved.

“I would’ve bet every penny in my pocketbook that we would’ve lost the town and The Inn if they hadn’t been down there,” he said.

Three hours later, the sun rose over a Rancho Santa Fe that looked largely like as it had the previous day. Three houses on Camino Selva, and many others in the eastern Covenant were gone. Only two homes were lost in Fairbanks Ranch, where the fire again jumped the riverbank and raced up a dry hillside.

The village, the schools, the churches, many businesses and most of the area’s homes had survived the night.

When orders for evacuation were announced Oct. 22, law enforcement and fire protection officers poured into Rancho Santa Fe Fire District Station No. 1 near the Rancho Santa Fe School. RSF Patrol Chief Matt Wellhouser ran the show — the next three days all flowed into one, and Wellhouser stayed at his post for up to 20 hours per day.

At the RSF Village Presbyterian Church, Rev. Jack Baca saw that fire crews were parking in the lot of the church.

“We invited the guys to come into our fellowship center. They were extremely appreciative of the showers especially. Some of the crews had been up for 48 hours at that point,” Baca said. “We started cooking in the kitchen and bringing in sodas and Visine and Advil and hamburgers as well as cots — 40 cots and air mattresses. And the fire crews just started coming through. If they had a few hours off they’d come in and we’d feed them and give them a place to sleep and a shower and just a place to be.”

Though firefighters had stopped flames in the Covenant early Tuesday morning, the heat was by no means off Rancho Santa Fe. With winds rising during the daylight hours, the Witch fire came around the other side of Lake Hodges and headed again down Del Dios — this time toward Rancho Cielo and the northeastern corner of the Covenant.

Firefighters stopped it around Aliso Canyon and Via Del Las Flores.

By the end of Tuesday, the fire was out — sort of. Though a front of fast-moving flames no longer threatened to move west, numerous hot spots periodically thrust columns of blue smoke into the sky. Fire crews would spend another day and a half trolling residential streets as wind whipped heat held below the ground into fresh fires, any one of which could flare up and threaten more homes.

Even on Wednesday, with camouflaged National Guard humvees giving a wartime feel to the village of Rancho Santa Fe and fire engines everywhere, hot spots flared up around Las Colinas and Via De La Valle, burning trees and brush. The area was literally still smoldering from the heat of the fires.

Vast areas east the Covenant were singed by the flames, but no homes were lost in Cielo, the Crosby or the Bridges — all of which were built after the fire district implemented fire protective building regulations.

The 21,000 residents evacuated from the Rancho Santa Fe Fire District were allowed back into their homes on Thursday, Oct. 25.

For the owners and residents of 21 homes in the Covenant (and more outside), the ache of a frustrating return was deepened by pain and shock of finding rubble where their home used to be. Save for a chimney and a pile of blackened soot and metal, some found nothing in the place they’d left everything.

One of those was Via Monalex resident John Rikkers. He moved his family to Rancho Santa Fe from New York City two months prior, and they were happy with a newer home they bought overlooking a small canyon. Having evacuated to Laguna Beach, Rikkers heard initially that his home was safe — only to get a call some hours later saying it had been completely destroyed. The scenic canyon now looked like a moonscape.

“Everything burned,” said David Ruiz of his family’s home on Zumaque, built in 1977. “I was hoping more of our stuff would’ve gotten removed but they’re just material things. My dad and the dog survived and that’s the important thing. Life goes on.”