An inmate hand crew heads up a fire access road to fight the Colby fire in Glendora, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014.
Photo credit: Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/MCT
Jan. 19--When the first 9-1-1 calls about the Colby Fire came in around 5:50 a.m. Thursday, dispatchers immediately realized it was serious.
"It's not a question of who called but who didn't call," Glendora Police Lt. Rob Lamborghini said. "We received hundreds of 9-1-1 calls -- the board lit up like a Christmas tree."
Dispatch immediately sent officers to the scene.
"Before they got close, they saw the flames," Lamborghini said. "We only had five patrol officers available that day, so we cleared all of our detectives and support personnel -- basically the entire shift that was on duty -- to assist with road closures and evacuations, and we called for mutual aid."
On the ground, Los Angeles County Fire Department dispatched about seven fire engines, a water tender, a bulldozer, and several hand crews to build containment lines.
Meanwhile, miles away, Super Scooper pilots were rousted from their sleep and instructed to fly their water-dropping planes over the blaze by sunrise -- the earliest time they can do so. Firefighting helicopters were already airborne.
LACoFD Deputy Chief John Tripp wasn't even supposed to be on duty Thursday, but he lived near Glendora and rushed over as fast as he could to take command.
"We built a surge," Tripp said. "We responded with a large number of resources from all our fire stations, and then asked for mutual aid."
Although the fire would grow to about 1,800 acres, consume five homes and damage several others, the rapid and aggressive response was credited with preventing loss of life and further loss of property.
Fire Capt. Mike Mohler, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the danger posed by wildfires in a time of drought cannot be underestimated.
"We're seeing unprecedented weather conditions," he said. "Already this year, just since Jan. 1, CalFire has responded to 150 fires statewide that have burned 600 acres.
"At the same time last year, we had only 25 fires spanning 40 acres."
LACoFD is monitoring weather conditions "basically every hour," added Tripp, because 2013 was the driest year in 135 years of record keeping, and offshore winds are further sucking moisture out of the chaparral, turning it into tinder in the foothills from San Bernardino County to Malibu.
Already, LACoFD has decided to lease the Super Scoopers for at least another seven weeks and CalFire has activated its fixed-wing tanker base in Chico -- seven months earlier than usual.
CalFire also refused to furlough personnel at four "air attack bases" across the state that normally don't operate in the winter. As a result, Mohler said, "We can have an air tanker over a brush fire anywhere in the state in -- at most -- 15 minutes."
During the Colby Fire, the local first respondents' call for mutual aid was immediately answered. Soon, the Angeles National Forest was crawling with first responders.
"Just within the first hour, we had over 100 firefighters, some from as far as La Canada Flintridge and Whittier, and all the communities in between," Tripp said.
Later, as many as 600 firefighters fought the blaze at one time.
Police officers from other cities, and also California Highway Patrol, quickly arrived from all over the San Gabriel Valley and Inland Empire.
Tripp said the immediate concern was to contain the fire, protect homes, and get people out of harm's away. Spot fires -- caused when strong winds pick up embers and spark new fires -- were also a concern.
"There were spot fires occurring half a mile ahead of the main blaze, because we had winds about 20-25 miles per hour," he said. "Fortunately, by midday, the Santa Anas had subsided to near nothing."
Even so, he never felt confident.
"No matter what you do, a wildfire could still overwhelm you," he said. "If the wind was more ferocious, we may not have had the success that we did."
"Still," he added. "I do feel that we did everything purposefully, and made as many of the correct decisions as we could."
"They did an outstanding job," said Joe Cina, executive director of the Glendora Chamber of Commerce.
Cina said the flames came to within 75 yards of his home in Azusa, but he never panicked.
"There was a fire truck in front of our house all day long," he said. "It as felt good to have them there, right in front of the place."
Mohler said the loss of five other homes was regrettable but, he stressed, "It could've been a lot worse."
"It's extremely unfortunate that there was structure loss, that is something that is very disturbing to us," Tripp said. "But at the same time, no firefighters or civilians were killed or seriously injured, and hundreds of other homes were saved."
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