Jeff Jardine

Beyer grad's day: Dad's funeral, then evacuation

Funerals and memorial services are supposed to be times of remembrance, reflection and, of course, sadness.

Former Modesto resident Kim Merrill had to put his emotions on hold Monday, exchanging them for the adrenaline rush of evacuating his home in the northern San Diego County community of Scripps Ranch.

As Merrill and other family members said goodbye to his father, 95-year-old Shelby Merrill, at San Diego's Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, authorities in Scripps Ranch went door to door in Kim Merrill's neighborhood. They warned residents that the Witch Creek fire -- one of the many fires ravaging Southern California and displacing hundreds of thousands of people -- was approaching. They needed to get out ASAP.

"We got through the service," said Merrill, 47, a 1978 Beyer High School graduate. "You're sitting there listening to the service. It's a solemn moment. You hear them play taps and they're folding the flags. I literally had one foot in the truck. I just wasn't there mentally when I should have been."

Because as the service drew to its close, his cell phone began vibrating in his pocket. A neighbor called to tell Merrill the mandatory evacuation was on. The moment the ceremony ended, Merrill and his family headed for home at a frenetic pace, only to find a roadblock on one of the main roads leading back to Scripps Ranch.

"One of the cops drew his gun on a guy who went through it," said Merrill, a public relations consultant.

Even so, he made the 25-mile trip in about 15 minutes. You do the miles-per-hour math. He used back roads to circumvent the barricade, made it to their home and began loading boxes into his pickup.

"We were already packed, anyway," he said.

They'd been through this before, when the 2003 Cedar fire destroyed a number of homes in Scripps Ranch and several on his street, including the one next door. In no small part, the Merrills' home survived because they had just reroofed it using concrete composition shingles to replace the wooden shakes, which can make great kindling.

Once again, Merrill said, the dreaded Santa Ana winds wreaked havoc by acting as a high-powered bellows, blowing flames all over the region.

"They were 50 to 70 miles an hour, blowing toward the west," he said. "The strongest sustained gusts I've ever seen."

It rekindled memories of the 2003 fire, which taught them to be more prepared this time around.

"It was déjà vu all over again," Merrill said. "We'd packed up a lot of the vital stuff. It gets your heart racing, how this could be happening again. My in-laws had been packing our stuff, too. We were able to throw some suitcases and extra things in my truck and head out."

He and his family spent Monday night at his in-laws' home, several miles away in Rancho Bernardo.

"Trees were down everywhere," he said. "It was bad."

The weirdness of this episode? At noon Monday, his in-laws had been evacuated from their place. Now, as Scripps Ranch was being evacuated, the Rancho Bernardo order was lifted and Merrill's family went to the in-laws' home, but not before getting trapped in a long line of vehicles trying to flee the area.

"I'm thinking, if the fire comes, we could all perish in this traffic," he said.

Except in this case, there was smoke but no fire. They never saw flames.

"I really think they were not going to let Scripps Ranch burn again," Merrill said, theorizing why the community was evacuated. "They were going to make a stand here. After what everybody went through the last time (during the Cedar fire), we were already frazzled. Smell smoke at Scripps Ranch, and that's the effect it has on you."

At 1 a.m. Tuesday, Merrill's mother, Jean, had to be evacuated from her Spring Valley home, also in San Diego County.

Twelve hours later, Scripps Ranch Mayor Jerry Sanders gave the go-ahead to Kim Merrill and other residents to return to their homes. By 3 p.m., they were back, looking at a familiar scene.

"Ash everywhere, just like 2003," Merrill said.

Ashes. Yes, ashes. His father's, too. They now rest in a mausoleum overlooking San Diego Bay, near the spot at Shelter Island where Shelby Merrill took his children on occasion. Shelby Merrill served in Europe, North Africa and the South Pacific in the Army Air Corps during World War II.

He and his wife raised their family in Modesto before joining all the children -- Kim, daughter Lisa and oldest son Terry -- in the San Diego area in 2002.

"He's interred there in a beautiful spot," Kim Merrill said. "We'll get back out there to Rosecrans, with my wife and kids."

And not to worry about leaving the service so abruptly, his sister told him.

"My dad -- he truly was old school, a man of action," Kim Merrill said. "He always jumped in and did what he had to do when we were in Modesto. My sister said, 'Daddy would have wanted you to take off. He probably would have said, "Don't even come." ' "

Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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