A fast-moving wildfire in San Diego’s East County that exploded to more than 10,000 acres in just two days left some residents fleeing the area – understandably rattled – and wondering what would happen to the place they call home.
“I was in sheer panic,” Lawson Valley resident and college student Brian Marlay told NBC 7. “I could hear the roaring of the flames as ash rained down from the sky. Incredible; I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life.”
Marlay was at home Saturday afternoon, taking his final exam online for his upper-division biology class at UC San Diego, when the Valley Fire sparked in the Japatul Valley area near Alpine. Cal Fire officials said it started in heavy vegetation off Spirit Trail and Japatul Valley Road at around 2:15 p.m. that day.
As the fire began to quickly grow, officials ordered evacuations for the communities of Lawson Valley and Carve Acre Road on Saturday.
As Marlay was trying to finish his exam, the flames were creeping closer.
“And while I was taking it, the sky is turning red and the fire people are knocking on my door,” he recounted. “And I had to stay there and finish it.”
“It’s the most panicked I’ve ever been in my life – taking an exam – and probably in general,” he added.
As Marley evacuated his home, he said he could see the flames near his front door. He could also feel the heat and hear the crackling.
He was terrified.
Marlay and his family were able to safely evacuate their home. They stayed overnight at his aunt’s house. On Sunday, Marlay told NBC 7 he was finally able to use binoculars through the smoke to see if his family’s home was still standing.
It was. The relief, he said, was instantaneous.
He and his family hoped to return home Sunday and “return back to normal life.”
Lawson Valley resident Carl Zaccaria also evacuated his home during Valley Fire. He said he knew, right away, that he had to get his wife, six dogs and two cats to safety.
“It was the fastest I’ve ever seen a fire move,” Zaccaria explained.
Zaccaria and his wife went to the evacuation center at Steele Canyon High School.
He praised firefighters for their swift, courageous efforts in the middle of the sweltering heat sweeping San Diego County.
“It was 111 degrees, and that wasn’t even up against the heat,” Zaccaria said. “They gotta be tough; they gotta be real tough. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Manuel Baeza wasn’t home when the fire started but as it unfolded, he couldn’t stay away.
“Half of the night I was walking on the brush up in the mountain, trying to reach my house,” Baeza told NBC 7. “Because my mom is there; she’s 80 years old and I take care of my mom.”
Harry Nyles lives off Lawson Valley Road, on a dead-end road that turns into dirt. He and his wife live in a granny flat, and his son and his family live in the main house. The family was told to evacuate Saturday as the Valley Fire scorched the area.
A couple of miles from their homes, Nyles said he could see houses belonging to neighbors being destroyed. Nyles estimated the flames “were 100 feet high.” He and his wife fled to an evacuation center.
On Sunday, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department said an evacuation warning was in effect for areas of state Route 94 and Marron Valley, as well as Lyons Valley Road out to the Morena Reservoir.
Tony Loera and his family have been living in the Lyons Valley area for seven years. Although his family has always known there’s fire risk living in the rural zone, he never expected something like this to hit so close to home.
“Worst nightmare coming true,” Loera said. “You think about this, and you always try to prepare. Thank God I did a lot of cutting of the brush a few months ago.”
Loera, who has young children, said the decision to evacuate weighed heavily on him.
“It’s kind of hard to leave when you don’t know what’s going to happen to the house,” he told NBC 7. “I just didn’t want to abandon ship, to sit somewhere wondering what’s happening.”
Loera and his family stayed in their RV, away from the fire zone, waiting for officials to tell them it was safe to go home. He tried to make it feel like a camping trip for his daughters, who were also concerned.
“I don’t like it when fires get to close to our house,” one of his daughters said. “It scares me – a lot.”
Meanwhile, some San Diegans were trying to access the Lawson Valley area over the weekend to help friends who had lost their homes or needed water.
La Mesa resident Candice Jones was in the area Sunday, trying to get to her friend whose home had burned down. She said her friend stayed behind to keep her horses safe.
“Her house is gone; her well is destroyed,” Jones said. “She had no water, no power, nothing. She has nothing. We’ve been trying to get to her all day.”
Jones said her friend had enough time to gather her horses and two baby photo albums before her home was destroyed.
“We’re going to get her a nice shower, a hot meal and get her out of this mess,” she added.
Kelly Edwards also drove into the rural area to help a friend who had too many animals to evacuate. Edwards packed some ice chests and was bringing her friend water and ice.
“Just doing what I can do,” Edwards said. “Everybody’s hot and trying to make it through this crisis.”
Edwards told NBC 7 she felt compelled to help however she could because she knows exactly what residents in the fire zone are going through.
She’s been there, too.
Edwards said San Diego’s 2007 Witch Creek Fire made it into her backyard, so she knows the impact firsthand.
“I know how unsettling this is, to even be anywhere near this fire,” Edwards explained. “So you want to hop in when you have friends and loved ones that are in harm’s way. You know that feeling – you just want to do whatever you can.”
The Children’s Nature Retreat – a 20-acre retreat for animals – was evacuated during the Valley Fire, too. The retreat is on Japatul Spur, about a mile from the fire.
Dan Cassidy of Lawson Valley decided against evacuating and stayed at his home. However, he did question his decision, even though he had spent a solid month and a 30-day Bobcat rental clearing the land just one month ago. He spoke with pride about his community's reaction to the Valley Fire.
"The neighborhood really pulled together," Cassidy said. "That’s hardcore. A lot of combined skills. We’re all here together…. You know, it’s been a real tight community. I can’t stress enough how much the neighbors that stayed have stepped up."
That sense of well-being, however, was shattered by the fire's destructive power.
"You know. you think you know your area well until the visibility is about 20 feet and you don’t really know where you are on the street or where you are," Lawson said, adding later, "It was the real deal."
Alana Roberts lost her home in Lawson Valley but was able to save her animals and some of her important paperwork.
"We made it," Roberts said. "That’s all. The animals made it."
Roberts' emotions after escaping the fire's path were understandably conflicted but she did acknowledge how unprepared she was.
"I thought, ‘We’re Ok. Our property’s completely cleared,’ but it didn’t matter," Roberts said. "But we lost the house, so it stinks."
Lilliann Langarica, whose family lost their home during the Harris Fire in 2007, lives in Potrero, which is currently in the evacuation warning zone.
"We lost the house we were living in. We were the first ones to burn," Langarica said about the Harris Fire, adding that "I’m hoping [the Valley Fire] is going the other direction."
Langarica understands the devastating loss fires cause.
"Last time we lost all photos, all the pictures," Langarica said. "I lost everything."
Langarica's family have been without power and running water since Saturday,
"It’s been awful," Langarica said.
It's no surprise that the Langaricas' nerves are thin after all that time -- and with their prior experience.
"We hear something -- if the dog barks, we hear something -- we’ll run out," Langarica said. "We'll just take off."
As of 7 a.m. Monday, the Valley Fire had burned 10,258 acres and was only 1% contained. You can read the latest updates on the firefight here. Evacuations and road closures remained in effect.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom Sunday declared a state of emergency due to the Valley Fire.
Meanwhile, as crews battled the blaze for a third day, the relentless heat sweeping Southern California continued.
The National Weather Service said its excessive heat warning would remain in effect through 8 p.m. Monday.
And then, more worrisome weather was on the horizon.
The NWS said a fire weather watch would be in effect from 3 p.m. Tuesday through 8 p.m. Wednesday for strong, gusty winds and low humidity in the mountains and foothills of the inland valleys.
NBC 7 meteorologist Sheena Parveen said those wind gusts in San Diego’s mountains could increase to up to 50 mph by Tuesday night, into Wednesday.
“Humidity is going to be dropping, too, so what’s going to happen by mid-week, is we’re going to have a very brief Santa Ana set-up,” Parveen explained. “So, that’s why our fire danger is going to be elevated.”