Are you listening?
In August of 1999 I lived in a house on a mountainside in Apple Valley, California. I worked for an answering service at the time and had been waiting patiently to hear from the local broadcast group about a job as a radio DJ. I had fallen in love with broadcast radio after having worked as a reporter and freelance writer off and on for many years. Radio seemed immediate and worthy and I really wanted the job. I had no idea a disaster would catapult me into the industry.
Fire On The Mountain
Driving home from work one evening in late August I noticed a huge billow of smoke rising from behind the mountain near my house. As I got closer it was apparent there was a very large fire burning somewhere and although I couldn’t actually see the flames it seemed very close. I began to get nervous and the minute I got home I turned on both the TV and the radio hoping to hear some news. I also called family members that lived in my area to see if they’d heard anything about it. No one knew anything and the general feeling was there was “nothing to worry about”, it was “far away”, and if it was important we would have “heard something by now”. My Mom and my step-father actually made fun of my worry and prank called me about an evacuation the next day. Obviously no one knew how serious this event was about to become.
The 1999 Willow Fire
The Willow Fire started Friday August 28 a couple of miles north of Arrowhead Lake in the San Bernardino, California National Forest. Because the fire was burning in mostly uninhabited areas, it wasn’t yet news. I made calls to the local radio station Y102.3 FM, the Apple Valley Fire Department, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) seeking information. The radio jock and the fire department assured me there was “no fire in Apple valley” and that all was safe. Little did I know at that time that small town media shuts down on the weekends. This proved problematic as the emergency unfolded because no one knew where to get valid information or instructions on what to do.
Here Comes The Flames
Within 36 hours the fire blazed its way over the mountainside and into the High Desert, specifically Apple Valley and then later into Lucerne Valley. Unfortunately for me the part of the mountain the fire crested was the very one on which my house sat. I had watched for nearly two days as the smoke poured from behind the mountain and now I could see the flames rolling over the peaks and down the mountainside.
The smoke was immense and it was getting harder to breathe the air. There was still no news to be heard anywhere locally and the state and national news organizations apparently were unaware that the fire was rapidly approaching people and their homes. I again called the Apple Valley Fire Department and BLM. They were only then realizing the gravity of what was happening and had no information to share other than that they were aware of the problem and working at a solution. Before I hung up I still had the sense no one was taking the situation very seriously so I was adamant that the fire was nearly on my property and that someone needed to do something right away. I made it clear this was a problem!
Soon you could hear fire engines racing up the hill with their sirens screaming. Fire personnel stationed themselves and their equipment outside of my house and began calling it their “Ground Zero” command post for what had quickly been dubbed the Willow Fire. There where firefighters from all over the state as well as those from other states who were eventually flown in to help battle what was at that time the largest wild-fire in Southern California history. Suppression of the Willow fire was ultimately directed by a National inter-agency incident management team.
Things Were Heating Up
The sheer magnitude of what was happening around me was almost too much to comprehend. The flames continued to roll down the hill and life became more like a slow-motion scene in a movie with every inch closer the fire raged. At the same time, my adrenaline was pumping hard and I was afraid my heart would surely fly out of my chest.
My in-laws arrived and took our animals away to safety. My husband finally gave up hosing down the house and property once the fire reached its edge. He took one of our daughters and our son to his Mom’s house in Lucerne Valley (the fire had not yet reached that area) leaving me behind.
Our other daughter was with a friend’s family out-of-town, but due back anytime. I knew they would pull up not knowing what was going on. I stayed behind to keep getting the news out to the public over the radio as best I could while waiting for my kid to get home.
Reporting For Duty
All anyone could rely on was action. Any action, and I was in full “reporter” mode. I wasn’t even thinking about my own house or personal safety anymore. I was like a woman on a mission. I began calling into the local radio station and giving updates to Frank Scott — the weekend DJ at the time. I was being given ongoing updates to report from the first responders on the scene. Officials also used my land line to make calls and occasionally themselves go live on the radio via my telephone.
Important papers and irreplaceable things became treasures frantically found and haphazardly packed by shell-shocked residents. Evacuations were in full gear and you could see cars slowly driving away — through the thick smoke, pulling horse trailers and loaded down with whatever people could fit inside; birth certificates, photo albums, clothes, and animals. The chaos was incredible. A lot of “lookie-loos” drove to the area causing unwanted congestion for emergency vehicles coming in and the residents that were trying to get out.
An Unlikely War Zone
Everything was surreal. Smoke and ash billowed thickly. Visibility was slim. Ash the size of plates and saucers burned my bare arms and legs as I ran back and forth between fire personnel and the telephone inside my house. I continued to throw more stuff in my car every chance I got oblivious to any pain.
The flames were quickly taking over the backside of my property. The fire was out of control and by that time I was the last remaining “civilian” on the scene. I had been allowed to stay longer than the others. Emergency crews were using my house for drinking water and bathrooms. I was still the only person in the High Desert — although unofficially, reporting details to the local media so there was value in my presence.
At one point I was forced to leave. It was unconscionable for them to let me stay any longer. My entire property was being eaten by flames and the situation was dangerous. There was no longer any guarantee of my safety.
Bulldozers were knocking down my retaining wall so a fire truck could get a hose on my house. Thankfully it was at this time that I got a call from my daughter letting me know they were back. Her friend’s house was two blocks further away from the fire so they were able to get in however, their neighborhood was beginning to be evacuated as well and the fire was rapidly approaching. Fire was spreading from one area to another by the root system of the desert plants and it was hard to tell where flames would break out next.
After one final call-in to the radio station, I ran out to my car. The line of bamboo that flanked one side of my property finally caught. It went up like a hundred gas fueled torches chasing me down my driveway. The heat was like a blast furnace and the roar was deafening. The only other thing I could hear were explosions coming from both sides of me. I later found out those were from propane tanks and the gas tanks of cars. It was a war zone.
I could barely breath as I drove away towards my daughter. All I could think about was getting to her and getting her out of there as quickly and safely as possible.
After picking her up I had to drive back towards my house and the fire in order to get to an access road that could take us out of the area. As I approached the corner a fireman recognized and stopped me. He leaned through the window and hugged me telling me not to look. I looked anyways. What looked like flames 100 feet high burned uncontrollably where my house was supposed to be. He squeezed my shoulder and gently said,
“I’m sorry, we couldn’t save it…we tried…”
My daughter burst into tears. I drove away as fast as I could. I didn’t look back. It was hard to see the road because of all of the smoke. Everyone else that lived up there was already gone, the roads were clear so I punched the gas pedal. I couldn’t get away fast enough to erase the image in my mind.
It took everything I had to keep my composure to drive. I even had to stop for gas. It seemed like an eternity before we made it to Lucerne where my husband and other two kids were waiting for us.
Telling my husband and kids that our house had just burned down was one of the hardest things I have ever done.
Late that same night my husband and I tried to return, but the whole neighborhood was locked down and still burning. There were police and barricades everywhere and try as we might we could not get through. I don’t know what we thought we could do. I think we just needed to see with our own eyes that the house was really gone.
It was three long days before we were allowed to return and assess the damage. As we drove up the first hill towards “home” we were afraid what the view would afford us. Would there be anything at all left to salvage? As we crested that hill the most amazing thing presented itself to our weary eyes. Our house! It was there! Every last brick and board of it, and it was pink from fire-retardant All of the shrubs and trees were completely gone — they’re roots burned as much as a foot deep into the ground, but the house was sitting there like a big beautiful pink mirage.
Assessing The Damage
After the smoked cleared the Willow fire had destroyed – in Apple Valley, California alone, 71 structures and 72 vehicles. The costs of fighting wildfires in California are staggering—nearly half a billion dollars in the 2008-2009 fiscal year alone.
A New Career
By the end of 1999 I was officially brought on as a DJ on the sister station to the radio station I had been reporting to during the Willow Fire. Eventually I had my own radio show Monday through Friday from 7 PM to Midnight. I became Cheri the “Rock Chick” on Rock 106.5 FM (it is now under new ownership and has a different name and format).