California Firestorm - Part I

Harvey Eisner presents an in-depth look at the California wildfires of October 2003, in part ine of this series. Included are excerpts of more than 50 interviews with firefighters, chiefs and incident commanders. This installment depicts the tragedy...


Editor’s note: Thank you to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Dore Davis Design for their contributions to this story. A satellite image on October 26, 2003, shows the fires and the influence of the winds moving...


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Editor’s note: Thank you to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Dore Davis Design for their contributions to this story.

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A satellite image on October 26, 2003, shows the fires and the influence of the winds moving towards the southwest. Multiple fires are visible in California and Mexico.

Courtesy of Landsat Project, a joint initiative of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The firestorm of 14 fires that swept through Southern California last fall burned 750,043 acres, destroyed 3,710 homes and killed 24 people, including one firefighter. These fires occurred in several counties at the same time, requiring 14,027 personnel, 1,716 engines, 81 helicopters and 55 air tankers. With incidents so large,it is tough to document in each location where units operated, evacuated occupants, created fire lines and set backfires to try to stop approaching fires. Mutual aid from within California and surrounding states responded to the affected areas. Firehouse® was given the opportunity to speak to a representative group of fire personnel who operated in different capacities and locations and had different perspectives of the operations.

Here are their up-close and personal comments:

Division Chief Mat Fratus, San Bernardino City Fire Department
The Panorama fire was over 20 years ago, so what you see on top is very green. What’s underneath is years and years of dead growth. I saw planes dropping constantly across the top and it didn’t phase the fire one bit. It just burned right through target lines.

We have probably started seeing the results of the bark beetle for quite some time. It’s become evident to most of the public in the last two to three years. In the last 18 months, it has become an issue of disaster proportions. I had trees on my property that are 120-, 130-foot-high colter pines, huge-diameter trees over 100 years old. In May, they were green. I went on vacation in June, came back in three weeks and they were all dead. That’s how quick they go. The bark beetle gets in and they’re done.

Probably one of the most amazing examples of the fire behavior to me was as my strike team was working these houses, I walked quite a ways back on this road and the reason I did was there was this noise. It sounded like a waterfall. I’ve lived up here all my life. There’s no waterfall back there. The farther I walked back on this road, it got very smoky and very dark and very loud. It just kept getting louder and louder to the point where you couldn’t even hear yourself talk and it was the fire moving through. I was behind the fire. The fire was ahead of me, moving away, but the noise that it created was just incredible, and I couldn’t even see the flames yet. So I can imagine near the base of the fire, if you were really that close, it’s just vaporizing the vegetation. For what little aircraft we had, they really weren’t able to do a whole lot with it because there’s too much heat.

They had killed the power grid so those downed power lines weren’t much of a problem except when they would block the road. The area of Hook Creek they’re not on natural gas, so they had large propane tanks and those things were blowing up left and right and venting. Just the venting alone would be enough to scare you. You would look up in the hills and it would be a blowtorch going off and it then it would stop. Then later, you would see a mushroom cloud of these things blowing off.

We were up in Green Valley Lake. We got snowed on, not so much that it would stick. We were doing overhaul and it snowed all day. It was about 19 degrees with the wind-chill factor and we’re still out putting pockets of fire out. To guys on the East Coast, this is nothing new, but for us, this is new. When guys’ pant legs are freezing up solid and you have to break the ice off of them, especially in a wildland fire, that’s just something you never see.

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