Every year, the Figueroas from San Diego and the Alcazars from Los Angeles go camping together, usually at Camp Pendleton.
This year, they decided to try someplace new and picked Cachuma Lake. They rolled in Friday, set up camp with friends from the Santa Ynez Valley and settled in for a weekend of relaxation.
Then early Saturday afternoon, while their children were splashing in the pool at Cachuma Lake Recreation Area, their peaceful weekend was shattered by flames that erupted just a few yards from their camp.
“When we saw it, it was just across the road,” Edwin Figueroa said. “Our campsite was right alongside the highway. I thought, ‘This is pretty close.’ You could hear the crackling of the fire.”
The flames and the smoke cast an eerie light over everything.
“When we were young, we had an experience with a fire in our neighborhood that changed the color of the atmosphere,” Dennis Alcazar said. “I knew this was not good.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, they decided to evacuate.
“All the big campers and motorhomes were up front,” Figueroa said. “I didn’t want to get caught behind them.”
His wife, Evelyn added, “There’s only one road out, and if all the motorhomes filled it up, we could be stuck.”
“So we just got in the vehicles and took off,” Edwin continued, adding that the park personnel had already loaded up their children at the pool and were taking them back to their camp.
The children all piled into the families’ SUVs and they drove out of the campground, right past the raging flames alongside Highway 154, even as evacuation orders were going out to the rest of the campers.
“We had to leave everything behind,” Evelyn said. “All the camping gear, the tents, the coolers, the food.”
“The beer,” Alcazar added.
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“We cleared the (Highway 246 traffic) circle right when the Highway Patrol shut it down,” Edwin said.
The three families ended up in the parking lot at Old Mission Santa Inés, where they watched the huge plume of smoke rising from the fire after their Santa Ynez friends left to go home.
“We have to go find another place to stay, because San Diego is too far to go,” Evelyn said.
Fortunately, Edwin is retired from the Air Force.
“I called up Vandenberg Air Force Base and said, ‘We’re victims of a wildfire. Can you accommodate us for a night?’ They said, ‘Yes, get here early.’”
Evelyn said there have been so many wildfires lately that she won’t let her children go camping inland, but they decided to take a chance on Cachuma “and look what happened.”
“There was a big fire up north, around Santa Maria, so I thought there wouldn’t be one starting here, too,” Edwin said.
His wife and Alcazar jokingly blamed the wildfire on Edwin.
“I just came back from Portugal,” Edwin said. “While I was there they had a wildfire, a big one. A lot of people were killed — firefighters, too. They got caught on the freeway.
“I left from Spain,” he continued. “And the day I left, guess what? They had a wildfire there.”
The three said they hoped officials would reopen Highway 154 and Cachuma Lake on Sunday so they can go back and get their camping gear, all of which is “pretty new,” Evelyn said.
“But the way that smoke looks … ,” Edwin said, shaking his head.
“If we can’t (get it back), we’ll just have to buy more,” Evelyn said.