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Residents keen to save homes stay

Officer Jay Odom, a 27-year veteran of the San Diego Police Department, was at his wit's end as the so-called "Witch" fire raged on Monday afternoon but Mohammad Ashtari, an earnest college student and aspiring pharmacist, and, as of this spring, a first-time homeowner, was unmoved.

  • Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
  • Published: 22:20 October 23, 2007
  • Gulf News

San Diego: Officer Jay Odom, a 27-year veteran of the San Diego Police Department, was at his wit's end as the so-called "Witch" fire raged on Monday afternoon but Mohammad Ashtari, an earnest college student and aspiring pharmacist, and, as of this spring, a first-time homeowner, was unmoved.

Odom had parked his motorcycle at one of the entrances to the Westwood community on the western edge of the Rancho Bernardo area of northern San Diego County. He needed to get everyone out, and then keep them out until the fire passed - everyone, that is, except for the scores of firefighters trying to save the homes.

Ashtari, however, would not oblige Odom's entreaties to leave his house, the first house on the first block past Odom's checkpoint. Outside, winds gusted to 50 mph, sending lawn chairs cartwheeling down the once-tidy streets. Smoke and sand and soot and embers whipped the air into a nasty stew. Flames seemed to be everywhere. Instead, he paced in his living room. On a flat-screen television, the news was on, and it was not good.

The two men spoke just once, when Ashtari, 21, ventured briefly outside.

"You'd better get out," Odom told him.

"I'm going to be staying here," Ashtari replied.

What resulted, over the course of the day, was a standoff, just one hidden piece of the mayhem that accompanied evacuation orders for 250,000 households in San Diego County.

Odom and his partner had gone door to door in the early hours of the fire, telling people about the evacuation, making sure they were on their way out. It was a chaotic race through the neighbourhood.

For the most part, the evacuation succeeded.

Schools emptied. Giant strip malls and office parks shut down. In front of houses in the Westwood community, children's bikes were abandoned on the sidewalk, their training wheels pointing toward the dark sky. A fresh pair of skid marks led from one driveway toward the road out, suggesting that someone was very serious about leaving.

Ashtari saw his four-bedroom house as an investment that could change his life. If every fire had to start with a single ember, he figured, couldn't he put that ember out himself?

Outside, Odom seethed.

"I just don't understand the mentality," he said. "You do your darndest to help them. And they do their darndest not to let you help."

Numerical disadvantage

Under a mandatory evacuation order, police could have removed Ashtari and the other holdouts by force, Odom said. "We just don't have the manpower."

Odom said he and his colleagues would man the checkpoint until they were forced to leave to protect themselves. With the sky choked with smoke, nightfall came early on Monday in Rancho Bernardo. The house was still standing. The fire was still raging.

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