The parking lot of Otay Ranch High School in Chula Vista was packed full of trucks and RV’s Sunday as evacuated families awaited returning to the Pio Pico campground.
The Red Cross set up an overnight shelter at the school for evacuated campers and residents of Dulzura, a community that was under an evacuation warning well into Sunday, after the Gate Fire sparked on Saturday.
Juan Valdivia and his family live in their RV traveling the continent and chasing experiences for his five children, but he calls Pio Pico home base at the moment.
He said that a lot of the RV’s at the campground house families living the same lifestyle-- They're known in the community as full-timers.
Valvdivia said that he wasn’t too concerned at the first sign of smoke, but then about a half-hour later, Cal Fire and law enforcement officers came to the campground and told them about the evacuation.
The Valdivias were packed and ready to leave the grounds within about 10 minutes of initial warning. They left the kids’ bikes behind and other replaceable items, focusing on the important things.
The family has suffered through two separate house fires and has lived in their RV since the second. Juan said his wife had an evacuation plan ready for this exact situation.
Cal Fire officials told Valdivia that there isn’t immediate danger to the campground and that they believe the fire has moved in the opposite direction. However, there is concern with the grounds’ infrastructure—potentially damaged wells and water pipes and a busted water hydrant impacting water supply.
“We’re just going to hang out,” Valdivia said. “Make sure that other people that aren’t as fortunate as us, that didn’t bring stuff over, are OK.
Valdivia serves as a part-time Ranger at a nearby park and said that his chief concern was making sure that everyone was safe and that their needs; food, water and pet care, are being met.
Valvidia's daughter Kaitlyn was celebrating her 18th birthday with friends on the grounds when the family had to pack up and leave.
"I think we were all a little bit panicked," Kaitlyn said. "But we knew were going to be safe and we were going to get out. I was concerned with helping other people."
Kaitlyn's attention turned toward an elderly woman camping nearby. She said she knew the woman's husband wasn't around to help her pack up, so she gave her a hand.
She even had time to go inside another neighbor's RV-- she knew her neighbors were away from their vehicle at the time-- and grab their dog. The two families met up later and so the pet could be returned.
Jennifer Cerutti, a full-timer and traveling artist, was resting at her camp site when she looked up and saw a big pillar of black smoke. After asking around and finding out little information other than a rumor that a warning had been issued, she called 911.
“Actually, before I called 911 I stopped a couple of people that worked in the park and they didn’t really know what to do,” Cerutti said. “They didn’t know if we were going to be evacuated or not.”
Her call to emergency dispatchers confirmed the park was to be evacuated, and that deputies were on their way to notify people in the campground.
“I was shaking the whole time,” Cerutti said, describing her own frantic evacuation process. “Somehow my adrenaline got me moving really fast. Normally it takes me a couple of hours to get ready to go, but I got ready in, like, 40 minutes or less.”
A good chunk of her time was spent hitching her trailer to her truck solo.
“It’s really hard to back up a truck and hitch a trailer by yourself.”
Cerutti credited the Red Cross for being “Right on the scene,” and helping evacuees any way they could.
One evacuated camper told her that Red Cross volunteers showed up at a nearby Walmart where campers had gathered, keeping them updated with potential refuge site information and providing other assistance.
“I’m really happy for the Red Cross,” Cerutti said. “This just feels safer than camping in a Walmart parking lot.”
Cerutti hopes that she can return to Pio Pico to resume her project, but may have to carry on in the L.A. area if the camp is closed. She said it’s a waiting game for now.
Otay Ranch High School is located at 1250 Olympic Parkway in Chula Vista.
Cal Fire San Diego officials said the fire began around 11:20 a.m. Saturday off SR-94 and Otay Truck Trail, near Otay Lakes Road, in an area called Pink Gates near a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint station. The area is south of Jamul and northwest of Dulzura.
As of 7:20 a.m. Sunday, the fire stood at 1,500 acres and was 30 percent contained, according to Cal Fire. Officials said that overnight temperatures and increased humidity allowed firefighters to make progress in fire containment.
Otay Lakes Road between Wueste Road and State Route 94 is closed, and all closures along SR-94 in the area of the fire have been lifted.
The next update from Cal Fire is scheduled for 6 p.m. Sunday.