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About Utah: A fiery week becomes her 'best snow day'

Everybody, it seems, has someone in Southern California they're concerned about this week because of the fires.

For me, it's Katie.

Katie's my niece, my brother's youngest daughter. She's 19, at the start of her sophomore year at the University of San Diego and, if I might brag for a moment, she's been nominated by her sorority for homecoming princess — so her studies must be going really well.

She resides in the dorms on the USD campus, in the heart of the smoky devastation down there.

Or at least she resided in the dorms until midnight Monday, when she threw a bag into her red Nissan Xterra with the "Start Global Cooling" sticker on the window and headed for her mom's place up the coast in Laguna.

School had already been canceled — for the week.

"This is like the best snow day of my life," is how Katie described it to me.

She said she left Monday night before she had to so she could get a jump on the inevitable exodus.

"The R.A.s came around and told us we might be evacuated anytime so put a bag outside our door just in case," said Katie. "There were no flames, but the smoke was really like permeable and really, really dark."

Heading north meant negotiating the gauntlet that was the 5 freeway, which was later closed but on Monday was down to one lane.

"There were times when I was like gripping the wheel as tight as I could. You could smell the smoke, and it was super windy," Katie said.

"I only took my prized possessions, three pair of boots and two pair of jeans, my laptop and my blankie. I figured I could get by without the rest as long as I had my cute shoes and my laptop. You have to make do in a situation like this. I did leave behind all my school books."

She expressed admiration for the way people around her have handled the situation. "It's all been eerily like organized," she said. "Everyone seems to be really like, 'Yeah, it sucks,' but no one's panicking or freaking out that I've seen."

Her plan was to return to San Diego today, providing the 5 was open, and work tonight at Gringo's, the Pacific Beach restaurant where she hostesses.

"They said they're swamped," she said, "everything else is closed."

"The dorms are technically open," she said. "My one friend is still there, and she wants me to come back because she's so bored. Apparently it's safe now."

"So I can say I survived Firestorm 2007, that's what they're calling it. We're all going to make T-shirts that say that, even if it is a horrible name."

Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to and faxes to 801-237-2527.