I'm a Southern California native who has spent only eight years of my life living elsewhere, so obviously I have seen plenty of wildfires. It was probably 15 years ago, maybe more, that I came as close as I ever want to be to being in Hell. We live on the Ortega Highway side of Lake Elsinore, on the hillside, with two houses -- three in one direction -- between us and the brush -- the chapparal. There are two switchbacks of the Ortega Highway almost directly above our house, and there was a fire in the hills above.
All of a sudden it reared up on the upperside of the ridge, flames must have been 50 feet high. We didn't think it would jump the highway, but it did, twice, and roared down to our house (wife and son had already left with photos and documents). There were firefighters in the yards right next to the brush and they managed to stop it before it consumed any houses. All the neighbors were out with garden hoses wetting down trees, bushes and roofs; it probably helped a little, but without the firefighters and their equuipment I suspect we would have been doomed. We've had a few fires in the vicinity since then, but nothing that close.
The current fires are the worst I can remember, especially in that there are so many springing up in just a day or two, with the Santa Ana "devil winds" making fighting them almost impossible. They haven't been closer than about 20 miles from our house this year, so we feel reasonably safe, watching them and writing about them for the paper, smelling the acrid smell of the smoke every time we go outside, whether in Lake Elsinore, Corona or Santa Ana, but otherwise not feeling personally threatened.
We had only about 3 inches of rain this last winter, so conditions were perfect. And these are the fiercest Santa Ana winds -- hot winds off the desert -- I can remember, with gusts over 100 mph and uinrelenting for two days -- more in some areas, though they died down a little today. Our outside room, even though it's mostly closed in, has a thick layer of dust and ash on everything, and the bottom of our pool has never been so dirty. Our front porch and front patio had a layer of dust on everything. The Santa Anas are supposed to die down, to be replaced by a gentle coastal breeze going the other direction. That may be the best hope of the things finally burning out. There's a slight chance of rain on the weekend, but I wouldn't count on it. We'll have to spend Saturday cleaning the outside room and the yard. What a mess, but compared to so many people we are extremely fortunate.