It Took A Team to Save Palomar Mountain from the Fire

George E. Lucia Sr., Chief, Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department was one of many fire chiefs in California in October, 2007 waiting to see if the Santa Anna winds would drive a fire up his mountain, to see what cards he would be dealt.

Chief Lucia had 30 well-trained volunteers on recall, eight CERT members, two fire suppression units and some patrol units that could pre-treat with fire gel. Six other fires were burning in the area and PMVFD would have to stand on their own if it reached them, at least for a while.

Wildland firefighting in California has changed a great deal since the disastrous fires of 2003. Lessons learned after 2003 have created a much more unified state effort and resources all around have increased. But as Lucia says, you could put a thousand fire trucks in front of a Santa Anna wind-driven fire and it would go right past you.

Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department sets alone on top of a mountain crowned by a giant telescope and about 300 homes. There is a two-lane road going up and down the mountain famous for 13 switch-backs on which motorcycle riders love to hold unofficial and illegal races.

Palomar Chief Lucia said the departments runs are mostly medical and many of those picking up bikers and hauling them to the nearest hospital or medevac field. There has not been a significant wildland fire on the mountain in 100 years.

That was fine with Chief Lucia, New Jersey born and trained. His war stories of 28 years of fire service are about apartment buildings and burning warehouses and his friends at FDNY. But after following family to California and taking a job as Fire Marshal with the Valley Center Fire Protection District, he ended up visiting the mountain area with a friend and soon he and his wife turned the mountain into their home. And soon after that he was Chief of PMVFD, at the top of a 6000 foot mountain with 12 volunteers.

Chief Lucia likes to ask a simple question, "Where did we go wrong? At what point did citizens decide they were not responsible for themselves, that 911 was the answer to all their problems?" And so he looked to two programs to help his mountain community.

The Fire Safe Council, a state wide program that involves localities in wildland fuel reduction was one of the programs that Chief Lucia credits with saving his community. His local council brought in grant money and volunteers to remove an immense amount of dead trees and brush filled canyons relieving some of the danger on the mountain.

As volunteer recruitment was increasing his crew, an even more important event was getting his mountain top community involved in a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). His six-person team stayed on the mountain after evacuations sent most of the residents fleeing the Poomacha fire. CERT enabled him to create a way to communicate with everyone in the community. They were trained in the application of fire gel. They became tour guides for out-of-the-area fire crews showing them water sources and back roads.

But with all the changes made since 2003, it was still just PMVFD sitting there listening as five other major fires were consuming resources elsewhere. To get the help you need, you want to be the first fire not the sixth, Chief Lucia said.

Chief Lucia had been working as a Strike Team Supervisor on another fire when the Poomacha fire started in the Cleveland National Forest at 3 a.m. Oct. 23. His battalion commander released him and he was soon at the base of Palomar Mountain with an engine, crew, water tender and a battalion chief from Cleveland National Forest. The fire was traveling at tremendous speed and out of control. He kept the rest of his crew at the top of the mountain working on preparation and final evacuations.

Toward sunrise they thought they had the fire cut off. But there were no aircraft flying water retardant drops and by 9 a.m. the fire jumped the line, "and we realized then we were going to get the brunt of this fire," Chief Lucia said. They regrouped at the top of the mountain and started pre-treating and getting ready. They had two Cleveland National Forest Engines with a commander, their own engine and a couple of type six patrol units. Their Type III woodland unit had been dispatched with crew to another fire two days earlier but it was returned to them later in the day. And later he gained another engine and water tender through mutual aid.

By 10 a.m. access to the top of the mountain had been cut off by the blaze. There still was no air support. They projected where the fire was going and moved in to make a stop by pre-treating the roadside brush with fire gel and did some back burns. The fire direction changed and things were holding on top of the mountain.

At about 5 a.m. Wednesday a new burn approach was heading directly at their fire station. They pre-treated and evacuated. It stopped and never got to the station. They spent the rest of the day moving around catching hot spots and in one instance nearly getting burned over only escaping after cutting hose lines free and driving out. On more then one occasion the fire would begin a new approach only to die away when it ran into a cleared, fuel reduced areas.

It wasn't until Wednesday afternoon that they got air support and additional units. "When it came it came big time. There were 50 plus strike team units from San Diego County and other areas. When they came it looked like a parade back east. It was bumper to bumper fire trucks. We had a piece of fire equipment in every curve in the road," Chief Lucia said. "We needed that help but it was the first 48 hours that was really cutting it close. We had been running 24-7, having our meals when we could, taking catnaps. For this crew, they performed unbelievable."

"Every firefighter has a passion to fight fires and protect people, but these people were protecting their own houses and their friend's houses, they knew everybody who lived and worked here. It almost a big concern as chief, that I had to watch their safety more then anything because they would absolutely put themselves in danger to save the homes."

I realized there was such passion involved in this project, I am very please that not a single citizen, firefighter or anybody was injured or hurt or killed on this fire," Lucia said. All 300 homes are safe and sound.

And it was the CERT members that made a major difference in how this small fire brigade was able to hold off this major fire. They pre-treated houses based on the projected direction of the fire. "When it got to the point when the fire was approaching, we pulled them all back to a safe area near the fire station and they became communications and rehab people. They got our food ready and fueled our trucks. They became guides for strike teams to help them be safe. Their resources and usefulness were amazing. They were familiar with fire safety and incident command. They just fit right in like you wouldn't believe," Chief Lucia said.

Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department

Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) Program