Mari Katherine Raftopoulos: The heart of our people
October 29, 2007
Editor’s note: Mari Katherine Raftopoulos is a Moffat County High School graduate, was a Craig Daily Press intern in summer 2007 and currently is attending the University of San Diego. She has experienced firsthand the fires occurring in San Diego and the people’s responses to it.
It’s a bubble. Everything seems perfect. All it takes is one flame, one gust of wind and one scream to turn a bad day into a natural disaster. It wasn’t the crisp ocean breeze that woke me up that morning or the laughter of my roommates echoing from the kitchen.
It wasn’t the sun peeking through the bleach-white blinds of my porch. It was the smell of 18 wildfires burning all of San Diego County. The smell was deep. More than the burning of palm trees, eucalyptus and grasses.
It was the burning of a 15-year-old tree house in a family’s backyard, the burning of a picture of their great grandparents on their wedding day and the backside of the closet door where the children marked how much they grew every month; it was the burning of 1,700 homes.
As I stepped onto my porch overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the rolling hills of San Diego, I was drowned by smoke. Like when you see someone you love for the first time in seven years and you lose your breath. Multiply that by ten. That was what it was like. It was as if someone covered all of San Diego with a blanket, and we were trapped.
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The sun didn’t shine – it tried but couldn’t. The fires surrounded us from all over; north, south and east. The ocean was the only safe place to be. The ash falling from the sky was the closest thing to snow San Diego has ever seen. My phone rang, but the number on the caller ID was foreign to me.
“Hello,” I answered.
There was pause and a monotone, depressing voice that responded.
“Due to the wildfires destroying San Diego County and burning the homes of both students and faculty, the University of San Diego will be closed Monday, Oct. 22. All major highways are closed and are only accessible to emergency personal and evacuees.”
That was the recorded message Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday until class was canceled for the remainder of the week.
I had two midterms last Monday and a part of me was selfishly relieved to hear the news.
The “fire day” brought an easy way out of my procrastination. But when we closed all the doors and locked all the windows, there we sat watching the numbers of acres burn and increase by the hundreds. Mandatory evacuations called for neighboring areas, and the devastation caused some of my closest friends to lose their childhood homes in the middle of the night.
It became real.
It became personal.
It became a state of emergency.
My three roommates and I huddled around the TV all day watching the news. It was the hottest temperatures San Diego had seen in the fall; the weatherman reported temperatures in the high 90s along the coast. The blistering red, orange and yellows of the fire made me squint when I looked at the screen. The fires ripped through the valleys of San Diego, and the Santa Ana winds wouldn’t give up.
Broadcasters tried to be optimistic, but with every positive came another lead to arson as the source of the fire and another dead body found. With every positive came eight negatives.
The map located the fires 30 miles away, then 20 miles away, then 18 miles away from our campus.
We could sit and watch the fire inch closer and closer or make a difference.
If that difference was a smile, a pair of socks or a cup of noodles, we wanted to do something to help. Even if it only impacted one of the one million evacuees, it was a step in the right direction.
The rest of San Diego had the same thought, crowding Costco to purchase nonperishable items to donate to evacuation shelters. It got to the point where the city had too many donations.
The city of San Diego became a community.
It adopted a small-town mentality. They say smoke follows beauty. And although it followed us for 500,000 acres, the city of San Diego found beauty beneath the surface of the sandy beaches and golden sunsets.
We found it in the hearts of our people.