ENCINITAS — This weekend marks the 10th anniversary of the Cedar Fire, which burned 273,246 acres in San Diego County making it the largest fire in California history.
Journalist Sandra Millers Younger recounts her brush with death and the stories of more than 100 fellow survivors, families of victims and first responders in her new book, “The Fire Outside My Window: A Survivor Tells the True Story of California’s Epic Cedar Fire.” She will be at Barnes & Noble in Encinitas at noon Oct. 27 for a book signing.
Younger first heard about the fire from her home in Wildcat Canyon several hours after it was first reported at 5:37 p.m. Oct. 25, 2003, in the Cleveland National Forest. By 7 p.m. it mushroomed to 10 times its size.
“My husband and I didn’t know about the fire when we went to bed but woke up at 1 in the morning and we called around and got someone at a fire station in Barona,” she recalled. “They said, ‘There’s a fire in Ramona a long way from you and it’s burning west so you are safe where you are.’ So we went back to sleep and the next thing we knew there was a fire around our window.”
Younger grabbed a laundry basket from her closet, then began filling it with photos from the top of her dresser and valuable negatives belonging to her husband, Bob Younger, a renowned fine art photographer.
“So we grabbed our dogs, a bird, and ran for our lives,” she said. “When we left the house it was clear, but a few yards beyond we hit the smoke which was so dense that I couldn’t see the road. It was cut from the side of the mountain so I could have easily driven off the edge. Then a bobcat jumped in front of my headlights and I followed him. When he disappeared I saw patches below that were dark red as I steered down the mountain.”
Many of Younger’s neighbors didn’t survive the inferno.
“Some had to jump into swimming pools with snakes, rabbits and rats because we were all reduced to survival mode,” she explained.
When it was all over, 2,200 homes were destroyed and 22 people killed. Twelve of them were from Younger’s community. In the aftermath of the fire, caused by a signal fire set by a lost hunter, Younger spent 10 years researching, interviewing and writing the book. She is candid about flashbacks and trouble sleeping that led to a decision to seek professional counseling to minimize the psychological effect of the ordeal.
“In a larger sense, we were aware from the beginning that there was a choice in front of us,” she explained. “We could consider ourselves victims or we could consider ourselves survivors. When you find yourself alive after driving through fire, especially when 12 people in your community die, it’s hard to think of yourself as a victim. We took the opportunity to grow.”
Today, Younger says she is buoyed by the positive feedback from other survivors who have told her that the book has helped them deal with the trauma.
“This is a tribute and documentation of an historic event so that people understand why these things happen,” she said. “It is really about the triumph of the human spirit in face of adversity. It’s a universal story. It’s an adventure story. It’s not just my story, it’s also the story of firefighters and their dilemma about how they were going to fight this fire and their frustration with not being able to stop it.”
Among those who have read the book is Cal Fire Battalion Chief Ray Chaney who was a first responder to the initial alarm on the east side of the fire’s origin.
“There are books that are written from the perspective of entertainment, facts and drama,” he said. “What I like about Sandra’s book is that it brings it all together from an emotional, technical and survivor’s standpoint — and is good storytelling. The first chapter brings you right in and flows with a cadence that becomes very exciting with a strong finish about where things are today. It’s an excellent read and very accurate.”
For more information, check out sandramillersyounger.com.