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Cindy Farless, Community Services Director for Lincoln Military Housing, arranges lunch and breakfast bags on Monday to give to junior enlisted military members and their families at the Ramona View apartments in Ramona, Calif. Residents had less than one hour's notice to evacuate the housing Sunday in advance of the San Diego County wildfires.

Cindy Farless, Community Services Director for Lincoln Military Housing, arranges lunch and breakfast bags on Monday to give to junior enlisted military members and their families at the Ramona View apartments in Ramona, Calif. Residents had less than one hour's notice to evacuate the housing Sunday in advance of the San Diego County wildfires. (Lisa Burgess / S&S)

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Newlywed military spouse Janette Mourton learned a very important lesson from the San Diego fires last week.

“We need to get rental insurance,” said Mourton, 24.

Her husband, Marine Lance Cpl. Joe Mourton, is stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. The pair lives in Ramona, Calif., in the Ramona View Apartments.

The complex is home to about 84 junior enlisted families. High in the hills of east San Diego County, Ramona was one of the first cities to be completely evacuated by the recent fire threat.

When her husband called her with news of the evacuation order last Sunday, Janette was at Kohl’s with her friend Audra Rosdahl, shopping for new sheets.

Her 6-month-old sheltie puppy, Ruger, had vomited all over the old ones. Mourton decided this was as good a time as any to change the color scheme in the bedroom to green and yellow.

The sheets were instantly forgotten. The two women rushed home with Hayden, Audra’s baby boy. With just half an hour to spare, Mourton quickly filled a suitcase with some clothes and grabbed her photo album, the treasured diamond hoop earrings Joe had given her for Christmas, and Ruger’s food.

Then she, Joe, Audra, Hayden, Ruger and Audra’s dog crammed into the Mourton’s black Ford Explorer.

Audra’s husband, also a Marine, was at Miramar, and was unable to join them.

As they drove down the canyon, Janette realized she had forgotten her purse. Inside it was her military spouse ID, her driver’s license, her Social Security card, “everything important, she said. “I felt like a big idiot.”

There was nothing she could do about it — with 30,000 people fleeing behind them, there was no way back.

The group drove to a Navy friend’s home, where five people and three dogs spent the night in a one-bedroom apartment. The next day, with the fire crisis continuing, the Mourtons checked into a Best Western Hotel.

“It was all just unreal,” Mourton said. “I was just in shock. We kept telling each other, ‘It’s just things, we can replace things.’ But we don’t have renter’s insurance; we were just talking about that the week before.”

It didn’t help matters that rumors were flying, she said.

“We heard our place had burned up, then, that it didn’t. I cried a little bit; Audra cried. I was thinking, ‘I want to go back to Ohio; I can handle floods.’”

Finally, on Thursday morning, the Mourtons were able to go home.

“There were ashes underneath the door, and it smelled like ash,” she said. But walking in the door, “I felt relief; Our stuff was still here.”

“I learned an important lesson,” Mourton said. “We need to have a plan for the next time, and insurance.”

Helping hand for returning families

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — When Janette Mourton came back to the home she had evacuated, the water was still off, and ashes covered the property. But she was grateful to be living in a military community, rather than civilian apartment complex.

“We’re really fortunate,” Mourton said. “They gave us port-a-potties, they gave us food and water — they didn’t have to give us any of that.”

“They could have just left us on our own. But they really bent over backwards for us.”

Her complex is run by Lincoln Property Co., which formed a partnership with the Defense Department in 2001 to privatize military housing.

On Oct. 26, when the mandatory evacuation was lifted, a caravan of Lincoln employees led by Cindy Farless, Lincoln Housing’s Community Services Director, drove up Route 67 to inspect the Ramona View apartments for damage.

They found a lot of grime and dust, but no fire damage. But the city’s water had been shut.

Farless quickly ordered the delivery of six port-a-johns and four hand-washing stations. She also rented rooms in a local motel so residents could go and take showers. The Lincoln employees then went on the Mother of all Shopping Trips.

They drove pickup trucks to Costco, the commissary at Naval Station San Diego, and U.S. Food Services to buy as many cases of bottled water as the vehicles could hold. Farless and her crew also shopped for cleaning supplies, sweet and salty snacks, canned spaghetti, laundry soap, diapers, cat and dog food, baby wipes, and other items they thought residents would need on arriving back home.

“We bought 100 of everything,” she said. “We were trying to think of what would be most helpful.”

After hauling the booty back to the apartment complex, the crew divided it into individual shopping bags to pass out to returning residents. The staff continued to pass out food and water over the weekend.

For families like Mourton’s, that effort was greatly appreciated.

“[The management] stepped up to the plate and helped us out, when they didn’t have to do anything,” she said.

— Lisa Burgess

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