They escaped the flames, but their houses didn’t make it
Associated Press Writer
SAN DIEGO (AP) ” Patty Thompson’s mouth was dry, her hands shaking, as she stepped out of her car in front of the hulking, blackened piles of concrete and twisted metal that was once her home.
Days earlier, she had barely escaped in the pre-dawn hours from flames advancing on her Rancho Bernardo home ” flames that licked at her feet and burned her robe. On Wednesday, Thompson, like thousands throughout San Diego County, returned home after mandatory evacuation orders were lifted in various communities.
Some found their homes just as they left it, albeit coated with a fine layer of soot and the heavy, hanging smell of smoke. Others, like Thompson, were left with nothing but a memory.
“I’m just sick to my stomach,” said Thompson, 50, as she surveyed the remnants of a home that once offered a view of the valley and the mountains in the distance.
She knew her house had been burned. She had seen pictures taken by her brother-in-law, who is a police officer. She had a few days to digest the news before she saw the house. And still she talked as if it still stood: “It has a pool. It has a deck. It has a screened-in patio.”
But seeing it, perhaps, is really believing it.
Reality settled in as she dug through the rubble, recovering several blue and white porcelain tea saucers, three white teacups and saucers and a delicate butterfly-shaped candy dish from the remains of her kitchen. She carefully stacked them on the concrete.
Just like Thompson, Cheryl Monticello lived in the Rancho Bernardo community. Just like Thompson, she fled her home in advance of the fire. And like Thompson, she, too, knows her home burned.
Monticello, who is eight months pregnant, fled with her toddler daughter and her husband Monday after a neighbor called to warn of approaching flames.
She watched television footage of fire chewing through her block, eating houses one after another. On Wednesday, she was still waiting to see her home for herself after she saw addresses of destroyed homes scrolling on TV.
The fire wreaked havoc on the Monticello’s block, carving an unpredictable path of destruction that burned one home and left another standing, and then burning three more homes.
The only thing left standing of the Monticello house is a white brick chimney.
“It’s the one thing we never used,” she says.
The Monticellos tried to get back into their neighborhood with their insurance claims adjuster but were turned away by police who refused to make any exception for an evacuation order.
“You really need to see it to know for sure,” Monticello said.
But even knowing the fate of their home didn’t make it easier for Thompson and her husband, Tom, who gained entry into their neighborhood through an escort from their brother-in-law, a police officer.
There was no sign of the Thompson’s cat, Pudge. They could hear her yowling at the back door as they fled the fire they had been alerted to by a family member, who saw the fire jump Interstate 15 and burn a path toward their neighborhood.
Her husband’s words still echo in her ears: “Get out. Get out,” he yelled as he saw a 30-foot wall of fire that was beginning to takeover their backyard.
There had been no time to go back, no time to try to find the cat with a 30-foot wall of fire closing in on their house.
“I’m worried that she’s gone, but being an outdoor cat she can fend for herself. I just don’t know,” Patty Thompson said.
As she dug through the rubble, there was no sign of 14 years of photo collages of the Padres training camp, her children’s baby clothes, a wedding album, her son’s karate awards and belts and keepsakes from her mother who died six years ago.
There was nothing ” nothing but a few dishes and a ceramic pumpkin.
Associated Press Writers Allison Hoffman and Scott Lindlaw in San Diego contributed to this story.
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UPDATE: Both westbound lanes and one eastbound lane of Interstate 70, according to a 12:20 a.m. update from Garfield County.