Fleeing the Flames: One Techies Story

As long as the fax machine continues to answer on the second ring, I know we still have a home to return to.

By Steve Kozsky

The phone rings and a recorded voice tells you to leave your home immediately, and bring only what you can carry. What do you take? Its the question that hundreds of thousands of families like ours have had to wrestle with since the mass evacuations of San Diego County began on Sunday.

We went to bed Sunday night feeling relatively safe in the knowledge that the closest wildfires were 30 miles or more away from our little enclave of Fallbrook, Calif., in the Countys far north. We woke Monday to an entirely different situation. A new fire had broken a few miles to our east. With the legendary Santa Ana winds gusting up to 75 mph, pushing flames directly toward us, the situation was suddenly precarious.

We had a few hours to plan our exit before we received notice via the Countys "reverse 911" call system that it was time to leave. Despite scattered reports of communities getting erroneous evacuation messages, the massive call management system worked spectacularly, and can probably be credited with saving innumerable lives as the fast-moving fires engulfed neighborhood after neighborhood. (A note of caution to VOIP subscribers: Vonage customers were reportedly unable to receive the evacuation notices, although subscribers of cable-based phone systems offered by TV programming service providers did get the calls. Check with your provider—choosing the right phone service could be a life or death decision.)


Read here about tech companies that were forced to close due to the fires.

So we loaded up children and assorted pets (pairs of dogs, cats, horses, and a lone rabbit) and made our way to a nearby horse ranch, Quail Haven Farm, that lies slightly outside the evacuation area. Here we sit, downwind of the fires and the stables, pondering our fate amid the falling ash and general anxiety.

What did I bring from my treasure trove of technology? With time and space at a minimum, the choice was tough. In the end, the most important item turned out to be something about the size of a pack of gum: A cellular USB data modem made by Novatel, and sold by Verizon Wireless as their USB720 NationalAccess Broadband device.

In this age of information, with the Web at our fingertips, hundreds of radio and TV stations broadcasting 24/7, it is amazing how hard it can be to get the answer to a simple question. The question in this case was, "What is on fire in my immediate vicinity?"

Local broadcasters were consumed with coverage of the largest fires, and couldnt be bothered to report on our tiny blaze, which has consumed only 6,500 acres, 200 homes, and displaced a mere city of 40,000. Public agencies offer recorded phone messages, but they are too busy fighting fires to keep the information current. Even local newspapers were unable to cope with the thirst for information among the refugees, all seeking assurance that their homes and loved ones were alright.

In the end, three sources of information have actually made a difference. Two are accessible only because of my Verizon Internet connection. The other was about as low-tech as it gets: a 10-year-old fax machine. The online information sources that became indispensable were the California Highway Patrols real-time incident log, and the impromptu user forums that erupted at the tail-end of articles published by our local "rag," the North County Times.


To read Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols column We All Live in San Diego, click here.

The information in the articles themselves was only nominally valuable, but as readers spontaneously interacted in the comments sections of each Web page, they began to ask and answer their own questions. Here were the priceless nuggets, where individuals relayed hearsay, word-of-mouth, and their own eyewitness accounts of what had or hadnt burned, street-by-street and neighborhood-by-neighborhood. For example, I read a post from a concerned daughter late last night about her elderly mother, who had broken the evacuation order and returned home. The woman in question turned out to be my next-door neighbor, and she confirmed that my home was also still standing.

The CHP log is limited to traffic-related information, but frequently contains references to locations where fires are erupting or being extinguished. The real value is that the system is in real-time, generated by officers in their cruisers, logging their activities in the field. The postings are laden with indecipherable police jargon and subject to the sometimes mistaken first impressions of these first responders, but it has been a godsend to the information-starved evacuees in our vicinity.

And the fax machine? It sits in my office at home. Every time I start getting anxious about whether my home has weathered the latest flare-up reported by the CHP or my online neighbors, I just call the machine. As long as it continues to answer on the second ring, emitting that horrendous screeching sound, I know we still have a home to return to. That sound has always made me cringe in the past, but today, it is sweet music to our ears.

Steve Kozsky is a writer and reporter living in Southern California. He is a former eWEEK staff writer.