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Remembering the 1985 Normal Heights fire

Posted: March 25th, 2016 | Columns, Normal Heights, PastMatters, Top Story | 5 Comments

By Katherine Hon | PastMatters

Many residents who lived through the 1985 Normal Heights firestorm are amazed that 30 years have passed. Time enough for children to grow up and have children of their own, time enough to complete a career and enter retirement. The blaze was seared into everyone’s memories, and it changed the community forever.

The firestorm started just before noon on June 30, 1985. It was a very hot day with temperatures in the high 90s. The flames started in the canyon south of Interstate 8, below the neighborhood perched along Mountain View Drive and side streets between I-805 and I-15. The fire’s cause was never determined, according to KPBS interviews commemorating the 30th anniversary of the disaster on June 30, 2015.

Flames raced up finger canyons and engulfed houses at the top as the firestorm leaped from street to street. A total of 76 homes were destroyed and 57 more were damaged. Local firefighting resources concentrated on structures; personnel from north San Diego County, Orange County and Los Angeles helped put out the flames in the canyons, finally bringing the firestorm under control by evening and stopping its eastward spread near I-15.

The fire raged along North Mountain View Drive, consuming one house after another. (Courtesy of Jim Baross)

The fire raged along North Mountain View Drive, consuming one house after another. (Courtesy of Jim Baross)

At the time, it was called the worst brush fire in the city’s history, although that status sadly has been far surpassed by multiple firestorm events, including in 2003 and 2007.

Normal Heights is bounded by I-805 on the west and I-15 on the east, and I-8 on the north and El Cajon Boulevard on the south. The original subdivision map was filed in 1906 by D.C. Collier and George M. Hawley, and the area was annexed into the city of San Diego in 1925. The community grew up in the early 1900s with other “streetcar suburbs” like University Heights, and the dominant architectural styles are Craftsman and Spanish/Mission Revival.

In the disaster’s aftermath, the community gathered to discuss how to maintain architectural coherence as rebuilding proceeded. The San Diego Chapter of the American Institute of Architects prepared voluntary guidelines that emphasized preserving existing character.

In a Sept. 18, 1986 Reader article, Jeannette DeWyze discussed progress one year after the fire, noting, “The houses being built in Normal Heights today, for the most part, don’t look like the orderly offspring of some disciplinarian document.” She asked, “Of all the thousands of ways to make a single-family-home look, why does any particular one look the way it does?” In San Diego’s streetcar suburbs built up before the era of massive planned residential developments, there are as many answers to that fascinating question as there are houses. In her article, DeWyze interviewed the architects and homeowners replacing six houses to provide six perspectives.

The fire damaged parts of the Carmelite Monastery on Hawley Boulevard but spared the main buildings, upper right. (Photo by Bob Stemen)

The fire damaged parts of the Carmelite Monastery on Hawley Boulevard but spared the main buildings, upper right. (Photo by Bob Stemen)

Architect James Robbins felt that houses built in the neighborhood after World War II “that defy classification” provided more stylistic freedom. He called the house he designed at 5166 34th St. a “Spanish revival interpretation.” Architect Richard Baker designed 3344 N. Mountain View Drive as a sculpture in western red cedar for the owners and contended the differences among various homes made for an interesting neighborhood. Architect Joe Martinez, who designed 3363 N. Mountain View Drive to replace his parents’ house that burned and 3358 across the street, predicted some replacement houses would “really blossom,” while landscaping would take care of others.

Thirty years later, although mature trees do soften the architectural contrasts, long-time residents know the differences resulting from the fire.

Bob Stemen has lived in the neighborhood since 1981. His house survived the fire, but he is still sad about older neighbors who did not have insurance and had to move away because they could not afford to rebuild. Stemen, whose grandfather built Revival-style homes in City Heights during the 1920s, also laments the loss of front porches in the replacement houses that placed large garages out front. In his opinion, that newer style diminished the previous neighborliness of the community, when a person could walk around and greet friends who were on their porches. But the neighborhood of single family homes remains walkable and friendly, true to the prediction of Joe Martinez in 1986 when he said, “In five or 10 years, the neighborhood will all come back together again.”

—Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at info@northparkhistory.org or 619-294-8990.

5 Comments

  1. Dani Smith says:

    I was five years old when this fire hit my neighborhood. My dad and both grandfathers sat on our roof washing the house down with hoses to keep it from burning. It was like being in Hell. I am now grown with a child of my own about the same age as I was during the fire. I live in the same house. And I still have nightmares.

  2. Amy says:

    I lived in the house from which this photo was taken; the photographer was my roommate! I’ll never forget this day, it was so frightening. One house would be fine and the next house gone in flames. I stood on the roof with a hose most of the day despite warnings to evacuate. Everything in our house had smoke damage.

  3. Shepard Nash says:

    I remember driving south on the I805 bridge over Mission Valley just as the fire started. It looked like just a little brush fire on the side of I8. I went west on I8 on my way to have something to eat at the Hamberquesa restaurant in Old Town. When I retuned 2 hours later, the entire south side of the freeway in that area was engulfed in flames. I couldn’t believe the the destruction in such a short time. VERY SCARY.

  4. Robyn Ouimet says:

    I was at the Padres game that day. It’s the first time I realized how fast dry grass could burn. I watched the fire go up the canyon and saw explosions from the gas lines. It was a sad day in San Diego. I now live back in New England and still miss the days of beautiful weather when the snow hits the area.

  5. barbra rhoda says:

    that day i was in mission valley at a ball game. saw the flames from normal hts…where i grew up. my father ted rogalski had built us a family home on n. mt. view drive..3446. in 1951. tried to drive to my parents home.. stopped by fire department. my father was then a stroke pt. friend was able to take my parents to safety. horrid day.

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