• For full fire coverage vist the Special Section. ABOVE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA – Just after 7 a.m. the helicopter lifts off and we head east over San Diego into a blood red sun and a sheen of smoke so thick the horizon seems to have vanished. We are 12 miles north of the Mexico border, at the edge of the first of more than a dozen fires that have turned much of Southern California into a hellish inferno – “Armageddon,” as one firefighter described it. Armageddon, on this Tuesday morning, is Sweetwater Reservoir reflecting a fiery orange sky in its once pristine blue waters. A snake of flames curling its way around Mount San Miguel, deserted of the hikers and bikers who would usually dot its slopes. Columns of smoke painting the sky an alarming rainbow of colors, jet-black turning to white and finally gray, even green. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREGame Center: Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, 10 a.m.Even from our vantage point, some 400 feet above the flames, I can feel the heat from the ground below and hardly fathom how unbearable it must seem to the thousands of firefighters hard at work around the region on a day when temperatures approached 100 degrees in some places. There is one bit of hope as another daunting day begins. The fierce Santa Ana winds that turned sparks from downed power lines and possible arsons into monster fires are calm, for now, blowing at just about 6 mph. “Yesterday it was howling up to 60,” says Tim Sears, our pilot on this tour of nature’s wrath. Still, the day is young – and we know such a precious gift is hardly likely to last. We turn north, toward the blaze so appropriately called the Witch Fire, and soar over interstates that should be clogged with rush-hour traffic. Instead, they are virtually empty, tens of thousands of evacuees having fled the night before to fairgrounds, hotels and San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium. Many others who weren’t forced to leave heeded a call to stay home so roads would remain clear for emergency personnel. Indeed, this bustling area renowned for its beaches and theme parks seems to have shut down. A lone fishing boat sits on Mission Bay. A few determined sunbathers recline on Pacific Beach. Golf courses across town are empty, but provide a few rare patches of green between mountain slopes reduced to blackened moonscapes. “Pretty thick in here,” says Sears, as he steers us into layers of gray smoke hovering over Rancho Bernardo and Poway, upscale communities of sprawling estates 22 miles northeast of San Diego and at the heart of the Witch Fire, which has burned more than 145,000 acres and demolished hundreds of homes. The destruction is immediately apparent. On one cul-de-sac, nine homes that once sat side-by-side lay in piles of white ash and crumbling red roof tiles. Chimneys and a few patio chairs remain, but little else. In the same neighborhood, a lone firefighter aims his hose at thin wisps of smoke from yet another flattened house. At a nearby nursery, others armed with hoses work to douse a burning eucalyptus tree while one crew of about a dozen lay sprawled by their fire truck, catching a nap. From the air, more action: Along the northern edge of a popular recreational area called Lake Hodges, a helicopter sweeps by and drops a sheet of water onto a blazing ridge that sits only a few feet from vulnerable homes. Sears’ radio crackles as other air support heads to and from active areas, some not even sure of their location because of the thick smoke to the north, and the burning sun to the east. “I have no clue where I am,” one says. The destruction, in numbers, is stunning: More than 370,000 acres, or 580 square miles, burned across Southern California since Sunday. From the sky, at first, it seems less so. We see no endless walls of flames, at least from our perspective, but rather spot fires here and there licking mountains and eating through palm trees. The sight comes as a relief to Sears, who’s flown over his share of fires in his 10 years as a pilot. He was in the air for several hours Monday, and saw towering flames eating through multimillion- dollar homes in nearby Rancho Santa Fe. Still, many other homes in the area stood Tuesday, the only noticeable damage swimming pools and hot tubs blackened by ash. Not everyone was so lucky. Not Poway. And certainly not the white stucco house with the red tile roof and palm trees swaying out front. It starts right before our eyes: just a flicker of flames peeking up through the roof tiles. The winds had picked back up, unpredictable as ever. The helicopter rocked to one side, dipped low and then roared back into position. Estimated wind speed now: up to 20 miles per hour, maybe 30. We circle the white stucco house and stare, the helicopter rocking and dipping. “Wow,” Sears says. The flames quickly grow to two or three feet, devouring stucco and tiles with an unstoppable hunger. For six minutes, we stare – noticing yet another house on the hill in flames, and yet another not far from that. But it takes only six minutes for the white stucco house to become engulfed – another damage statistic to some, another lost dream to someone else. “It’s a goner,” says Sears, whose own home in nearby Solana Beach, close to the coast, is safe for now. Perhaps 400 yards away, I see a figure clad in a green T-shirt walking outside a still-standing home, examining the scene around him. The homeowner? A neighbor? There’s no telling. But all around him, homes are in flames. He, like us, just stares. We saw some of the multi- million-dollar homes of Rancho Santa Fe diminished to ash and, in nearby Ramona, a mobile home still standing. We saw entire mountains turned black, where once dense brush stood almost 10 feet high. We also saw the horses, grazing calmly outside of Ramona. And the American flag blowing in the breeze in front of one preserved house. Armageddon was all around us, no doubt. But so were signs of life.160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!
160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! NEW YORK – Legions of tiny bloodsucking bugs are biting their way through the Big Apple, making this the city that never sleeps … tight. Bedbugs are back, and they’re not just rearing their rust-colored heads in New York City. Experts say they’re spreading to other states and countries. Exterminators who handled one or two bedbug calls a year are now getting that many in a week, according to the National Pest Management Association. “There’s an epidemic going on throughout the country, and New York seems to be the hotbed,” said Jeffrey Eisenberg, a pest control expert. Bedbugs are turning up in hospitals, schools, movie theaters, health clubs. Recent reports put them in a New Jersey college dorm and a Los Angeles hotel – where one guest filed a $5 million lawsuit. Apartment tenants have taken landlords to court over infestations. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORESanta Anita opens winter meet Saturday with loaded card The current generation of exterminators has been caught unaware by these pests, which were all but forgotten for decades. They blame the comeback on several factors, primarily increased global travel and the banning of potent pesticides like DDT. read more