The Horrible Irony Of Disaster: San Diego winds create both havoc and beauty.

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By Chris Cote

The parallel between heaven and hell was never so evident than during three days in late October. Sixteen lives were lost, over 3,000 homes were destroyed, and 391,856 acres burned, yet San Diego County surfers reveled in the best two surfing days of the year. The irony and utter inequity of those three days was mind-boggling.

Why is it that waves and favorable surfing conditions generally come with disaster and misery?

On the East Coast, hurricanes that level entire communities create the swells that Right-Coasters live for. While a monster storm is spinning in South Carolina, perfect waves and sunny skies grace New Jersey. While people’s homes are being ripped from their foundations by 150-mile-per-hour winds, Sam Hammer and friends are enjoying rare stand-up tubes on Long Island.

Tropical depressions that pound Hawai’ian shores with massive waves are welcomed by the brave souls who paddle out to sea to challenge them, but the sailors and ship captains who meet these same storms hundreds of miles off the coast are faced with bow-breaking 100-foot swells and winds that can tear a mast right out of the deck.

Similarly, the typhoons that push waves to the shores of Japan are also known to cause terrible floods, tsunamis, and millions of dollars in coastal damage.

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Even in the Amazon River, tidal bores that push upstream devastate the shore. But, they also create a nine-mile-long rippable right- and left-hander.

Weather is always the cause of waves—and most always the cause of disaster.

Every fall in Southern California, Santa Ana winds come howling across the inland valleys and blast out onto the beaches, where they blow strong offshores, sometimes for days on end. These dry winds coupled with the fact that Southern California is an arid desert, create the perfect weather pattern for brush fires. A small spark can light a fire, which is then fueled by the dry low-desert brush, swept across the hills by vicious winds, and eventually embers swarm like locusts to populated areas and begin to latch onto houses, causing complete destruction.

This year’s fire season started quietly, then in a matter of hours roared into an out-of-control blaze that has been called California’s worst ever, causing an estimated 890-million dollars’ worth of damage.

Trouble started about twenty minutes east of the beach in San Diego County. The three points of origin are thought to be near Cedar, Otay, and Paradise, California (small rural towns in the southeast region of San Diego County). In one case, a hunter in trouble set of a flare that ignited some brush, and soon after, the first signs of smoke showed in the sky in the afternoon of Friday, October 25. The first realization that something was wrong was around 1:00 p.m., when a dark-gray cloud of smoke became visible in the skies over inland San Diego. By 4:00 p.m. the daunting cloud had turned black and was gushing into the sky while being carried west by an offshore flow. At the same time, many coastal residents noticed the ocean was being groomed by the same offshore winds and a strong southwest groundswell was building. As dusk neared, the news had spread across the county—the fires were reaching the out-of-control level.

That night, television news began showing images of hell on every channel. By 8:00 p.m. six people had died and hundreds of homes had already been burned to the ground. The winds showed no signs of weakening, and a state of emergency was declared in Southern California.

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The next morning, Saturday, October 26, as thousands of people who’d fled the night before woke up in emergency shelters, coastal residents woke up to clouds of ash falling from the sky like snow. Cars everywhere had a coat of gray soot, and people’s lungs ached from breathing in ash all night. The winds hadn’t let up, and the swell that had been building the day before wwas plowing into area beachbreaks. Overnight, offshore winds groomed the head-high waves into near-perfect conditions. For those of us who sat in the water and looked toward the beach, awe and shock were replaced by guilt. How could we be sitting out here having the time of our lives when people are dying and lives are being destroyed?

As the day went on and the fires grew worse, thousands more had to be evacuated. Every available firefighter from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border was battling the multiplying blazes. The sky from Tijuana to Oceanside shone dark red by 3:00 p.m. That night, newscasters read through the day’s devastation in tears, and San Diego as a county prayed for a miracle.

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Sunday came around, and the fire was still raging. The skies had grown darker than the day before, and the end looked nowhere in sight. The Santa Ana winds continued to whip the fire into a fury. That afternoon, the sun was supposed to set at around 6:00 p.m., instead, dusk came at 4:00 p.m. due to the thick layer of smoke on the horizon.

The morning of Monday, October 27 held a bittersweet surprise for surfers. The morning sky glowing red, the ocean was a golden oil-glass, and the waves were the best they’ve been all year. As the fires still raged, surfers were ironically enjoying stand-up barrels, uncrowded lineups, consistent sets, and all-day offshore winds that turned many average beachbreaks into machine-like wave parks. All San Diego schools were closed, and the mayor urged residents to stay off the roads. Work was called off for most everyone, and the news warned people to stay inside. Surfers never seem to heed warnings like this, and many of us took to the beaches. Of course the guilt still remained—as surfers, we were reaping the rewards of perfect waves, warm offshore winds, and uncommonly uncrowded peaks, but as humans we were floored by the Armageddon-like plumes of smoke that spewed into the heavens and the loss of life occurring mere minutes away.

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The following images are somber reminders of October 27, 2003. A day that will live in infamy, as well as in cherished memories.