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Ground zero victim survived in creek

Elisa Williams had been a lifelong resident of her Rice Canyon Road home before the Rice Fire started on her property and destroyed her house. The first resident to be impacted by the Rice Fire had to spend time in a creek as the fire surrounded her.

“I walked away from the fire that morning with my personal possessions being some of the clothes I had on,” Williams said.

The Rice Fire began when a power line on her property fell to the ground and caused a spark which ignited nearby vegetation.

“Other neighbors saw it before I did at an earlier stage,” Williams said. “What I heard was a very strange on and off roaring sound.”

Williams, who had been sleeping lightly due to the high winds, looked outside and saw sparks as well as a fire on her property bythe side of her driveway. “That’s the only way out – the only way you can take a car out, at least,” she said.

Williams returned to the house where the family had lived since 1946. “When I went back I gave 9-1-1 a fast call and they told me to get out if I could,” she said.

Williams headed for a creek in the back of her property, noting that such a solution was preferable to the other alternative of running around the edges on rough terrain in 4 a.m. darkness with fire spreading on the ground.

The lack of electricity gave her only smoke-obscured starlight to make her escape to the creek down the hillside.

“I knew I had to get down there before fires broke out that would trap me on both sides,” she said. “The fire was still a long way down my driveway, but I had seen it advancing fast and there were already embers on the far side of me.”

Williams had minimal time to evacuate her belongings. “I grabbed my purse, a folder of family papers and a laptop computer and I laid them down in the back and waded into the water,” she said.

The embers continued to spread the fire. “Then they started to spring up on the banks,” Williams said. “I realized that everything was going to burn.”

The laptop was too heavy to carry, but Williams moved the rest of the belongings she had saved. “I pulled up my things to go to what I thought would be a safer place,” she said.

The laptop was left on the bank. “It burned really, really well,” Williams said.

Williams felt that a rock might serve as a sanctuary for her remaining items. “I wanted a way to put my purse and papers on that rock,” she said.

The creek was originally built in the 1930s as a cement dam and was intended to hold water for irrigation, although it has not been used for that purpose in recent years. It measures approximately 15 by 20 feet and is about two feet deep with a muddy bottom.

The sandy banks of what the family had used as a summer swimming pool also served as some protection. “It burned down to the edges of the pool,” Williams said. “I couldn’t see my house burning, but I knew it was.”

The creek runs over a waterfall to an even deeper pool. “I thought about that, but I couldn’t get down to it easily, which was good,” she said.

A dead limb on a tree caught fire and burned, which would have trapped her had she attempted to reach the other pool. “I was rather glad I was safely away,” she said.

“I just waited it out,” she said. “The water got really, really cold after a while.”

The fire mitigated that condition to some extent. “The warmth of the flames felt rather nice and cozy,” Williams said.

Daylight soon appeared, and when the flames in Williams’ area began to die down the reduced smoke produced clearer skies. Williams began contemplating a way to get out of the area.

Williams lost a shoe wading through the mud in the creek and couldn’t find it. She was able to use some clothing items to leave the creek.

“I started trying to scrape away a path on the hillside where I could get out,” she said. “It didn’t work too well at first.”

Eventually she climbed high enough to leave the creek, which also allowed her to see emergency vehicle lights on Rice Canyon Road.

She tried yelling. “Voices answered and voices started yelling a whole lot closer,” she said.

Four firemen rescued Williams, one of whom had her put her bare foot on his boot.

“I got out of there without being burned,” she said. “It was sickening to see what was left of my house, which wasn’t much, but I’m happy to be alive.”

She was airlifted to Palomar Hospital for observation. “I’d breathed a lot of smoke; I’d had a rough time,” she said. “I’d been there four hours since the start of the fire, but I didn’t have any burns.”

Williams didn’t realize how extensively the fire had burned in Rainbow. “I’m very grateful to the volunteer firemen for all the work they did,” she said.

After Williams left the hospital she stayed with her sister in Poway, which was endangered by the Witch Fire. “A bunch of it came very close to where she was,” Williams said. “It was a repeat of 2003 for her.”

The 2003 Cedar Fire had burned the hills above the home of Williams’ sister, and the Witch Fire also reached those hills. Williams’ brother-in-law stayed home to fight the fires if necessary.

Williams’ papers survived the fire ordeal. “That’s been very useful to me already,” she said.

The family photos were lost. “I’ll be able to replace some from other family members, but there’s a lot that I really wish I had and they’re gone forever,” Williams said.

Williams was the sole occupant of the Rainbow house. Her mother passed away in 2005 and her father passed away in the late 1990s.

The destruction of her home didn’t destroy Williams’ plans for returning to the property with a new house. “I’d like to live there again. It’s a beautiful place,” she said.

 

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