The Evacuation Story
"I see fire over the ridge, so we need to go!" my father exclaimed as he scuttled into the house with our neighbor. It was eleven o'clock at night on the day of October 25, 2003, but I could not sleep because we had been advised that Lake Arrowhead would soon be under mandatory evacuation as the fire in Crestline kept raging northwest. The power had gone out earlier that day because the severe Santa Ana winds had knocked down several power lines, but this was the least of my worries at the moment. At the time I was moving back up to the mountains and my dad and I had planned on going to my apartment earlier that day to collect the rest of my belongings, but Highway 18 down the mountain had been closed because of the Old Fire.
The Grand Prix Fire had now merged with the Old Fire and was now headed towards Crestline, which was placed on mandatory evacuation in the early evening of October 25. Around eight o'clock that night the phone rang as I was laying on my bed in a state of insomnia, but wishing my sleep depraved anxiety to melt away. I was blankly staring into the darkness wondering what was going to happen when the ringing of the phone made my heart start pounding. When I picked up the receiver I could hear the panic in my friend's voice when she asked whether Lake Arrowhead was under mandatory evacuation because her husband's friend had called to let them know the sheriff was going around Crestline informing everyone they had to leave. This call mounted my anxiety when she told me the sheriff had driven up all the streets in Crestline with a blow horn announcing the evacuation was on.
I told her I had to go because we were waiting to see what might happen, so I hung up and then heard many cars speeding past our house. It was rare to see so many cars zooming down the main road near our house because usually, only drunk young people raced down this road on the weekends. Everyone usually complained about the intoxicated jerks that had no empathy for the safety of children or animals when they sped down our street, but tonight we could hear what sound like a continual whoosh of engines similar to a freeway. Actually this was the first time I had heard so many cars speed past since the campground had been closed a few miles from our house in the mid-eighties.
We knew all of these cars were headed for California State Highway 173, which is the last California highway a large unpaved portion of over fifteen miles. Every attempt to pave Highway 173 resulted in the asphalt being washed off by rains and snows during the winter months, so the road has remained mostly unpaved since the early 1940s. Highway 173 was a narrow and difficult road to traverse ordinarily and it is not recommended for travelers with vertigo, which I do not have, but I hated being in a vehicle going down this road on the best of days. I used to love running down Highway 173, but getting in a vehicle going down this road was quite a different story. I was not looking forward to the impending evacuation and four wheel drive down Highway 173.
You can see the switchbacks and precipes on this one lane dirt road. The dirt portion of 173 is now closed to the public.
Soon after my dad announced that he and his friend had seen fire over the ridge, our phone began incessantly ringing as everyone was packing. A shrill ring emanated from our house phone, and it was a recorded message telling everyone to leave the Lake Arrowhead vicinity, so I called called my sister and her husband to come over so they could drive down Highway 173 with us. My sister arrived within ltwenty minutes, which was quite fast considering they lived on the other side of the mountain. My other sister finished packing our mom's car within another fifteen minutes, but all I could focus on was the screams of panic all around the neighborhood.
It was jarring people screaming and yelling for everyone to get in their cars and take off, and even in my state of heightened anxiety I felt somewhat more calm and collected than they did. My dad was having an anxiety attack about not wanting to leave the house, but the rest of my family took off by one in the morning. One of my sisters was driving with her husband and kids in their car, while my mom was driving her car with my other sister, our Siberian husky Lady, and our cat Bobby. I had stayed behind to help my dad continue to pack, but he soon became lethargic and reluctant to leave.
My dad was pacing around the kitchen drinking coffee and packing very slowly, so I asked him why the urgency earlier when now he just wanted to take his time. He finally agreed to pick up the pace and we went out to the backyard to put Buster in his truck, which was a very and large Siberian/bull mix that detested car rides. He squirmed and I hoisted his burly one hundred pound body up into my dad's truck, which was no easy feat since I did not weigh much more than that dog at the time.
As we began the drive down Highway 173, Buster was squirming around because he hated car rides, and I was not enjoying driving down this narrow road in the dead of night. There are no street lights to illuminate the precipices and switchbacks of Highway 173, which is the last unpaved highway in California.
Keep in mind one false move could send a vehicle plummeting down several hundred feet down into the Mojave Canyon in the dead of night. My worst fear materialized when a man in a truck, who I will call Uphill Man, was trying to come up 173 , which under ordinary circumstances is difficult because this narrow dirt road can barely handle two way traffic. Usually one vehicle has to pull far over near the ledge of the road and allow the uphill traveler to pass, but tonight this would not work with the large train of lights vehicles making their descent from Lake Arrowhead to Hesperia. Uphill Man was driving against the traffic headed for Hesperia, and he would have caused a major wreck if someone had not stopped him in his tracks.
At first my dad was going to pull over and allow Uphill Man to pass, but I pleaded with him to get this man to stop. My adrenalin caused me to jump out of the vehicle and motion Uphill Man to turn back around and start heading back down towards Hesperia.
The man in the truck behind us jumped out and shouted, "Get the truck ahead of you to go back down!" and I was stricken with torment to see a long stream of headlights coming to a standstill because of Uphill Man.
My dad finally was able to make Uphill Man to turn back around, but the terrifying part was there was no room to turn on this narrow stretch of road. I could literally hear rocks tumbling down the canyon and the tires of Uphill Man's truck grinding against the side of the dirt road. Uphill Man finally realized he could not turn around without causing a major wreck, so he had to drive backwards towards Hesperia, which was about ten more miles of driving on a dirt road that zigzagged to the bottom of the mountain. Uphill Man had no choice because many vehicles could have plummeted to their deaths if he had attempted to turn around. Even more people could have been injured Uphill Man had not been deterred in his attempt to drive back up towards Lake Arrowhead. Finally my adrenaline subsided and we came around a corner and I had my first glimpse of the fire in the distance just a few miles from the Crestline vicinity.
The fire everyone had dreaded because California had experienced several years of droughts was now a reality, so we had to make the rest of our trip down Highway 173 as safely as possible. We did not reach the bottom of the mountain until four in the morning, and the rest of my family was far ahead of us. My dad decided to drive to his friend's house in Summit Valley, which is a few miles away from Hesperia. He had assumed my mom and my sister had directions to Summit Valley, but I was unable to get a hold of my sister because of the spotty 2003 cell phone reception in rural areas, so my dad and I had no way of knowing for sure if the rest of our family would be at his friend's house when we arrived.