California Firestorm - Part I

Sept. 1, 2004
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 that burned more than 750,000 acres and killed 24 people.
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 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.

Everybody gave their all. We normally work in 12-hour shifts. Thirty-six hours was not uncommon at all. You work 36, get to sleep for eight, go back and do 36 more. There were guys that were really beat, but I think everybody knew what was at stake and was ready to give the extra effort.

Battalion Chief Norm Plott and Chief Ted Smith, Ventura County Fire Department
Our relative humidities were ranging from 15 to five percent. Below 30 is actually critical. As far as being below 15, you’re looking at fire behavior that will be extreme. Our burn index was off the chart, a listing of 245 is critical extreme and this was registering at 298. Saturday, the day this fire broke, was the highest burning index ever recorded.

What you had was a funnel or chute, which took this fire out like a blowtorch. We had over 100-foot flame lengths reaching across a two-lane highway directly impinging a trailer home park; we ended up losing three of those. When the fire is like that, you have to get out of its way and you can only flank it. You can’t make a frontal assault on a fire of that nature because you’re putting the people in jeopardy. This fire came out of this canyon like nothing we’ve ever seen.

You have three different geographical areas with resources depending on your needs. Right off the bat, the deputy chief ordered 50 strike teams for a contingency. He called the fire chief on the phone and he said it’s jumped the Santa Clara riverbed, it’s burning into Simi Valley. If we don’t stop it, it’s going to burn to Malibu. A four-lane highway was not stopping this fire.

We had 15 fire trucks to cover a 20-mile stretch of roadway, which was a very tough proposition to hold it. That’s all the resources we had. The one thing I’d like to say is that the firefighting efforts by the individual fire company officers were nothing short of extraordinary. Their skill and expertise and actions within their structure protection groups were the key to saving a lot of houses.

I have a critical piece of property to protect. The Reagan Presidential Library was threatened by this fire. They had just moved Air Force One there two months prior. So you can understand the concern. The deputy chief was saying face to face you need to hold it, you need to hold it. The fire was a half a mile away and the Reagan Library was on a upslope.

I told the troops, I said you were working hard, I know we’re all tired, but here is the most critical piece. What had happened is that we started to get firebrands. We ran into a deep fuel pocket, a heavy dense fuel pocket of the chamise, sumac and scrub oak that was starting to heat up. I called in for air reinforcements.

I got on the radio, called the operations chief, and I said, chief, we do have a problem, and this fire now has progressed past Tierra Rejada in a southerly direction. We have the City of Thousand Oaks; the community of Sunset Hills and the Reagan Library is now in danger. The fire is going to impinge on the Reagan Library. At that point, I got all the aircraft up and fired. It must have been a presidential directive. Next thing overhead, I had two heavies and two medium helicopters. I said my objective is to head this fire away from the Reagan Library because it’s going to run up that hill.

I think the real credit, though, I really would like to emphasize, belongs to the individual firefighters that acted out acre by acre – house-by-house, hand-to-hand combat. That’s where you had to dig in and make a stand, and our folks in all the agencies involved just dug in and under extreme conditions. I talked to people who were scared for their lives.

San Bernardino City Firefighter
It was like a war zone. We had houses burning everywhere. You try to protect as many homes as you can because there was nothing we could do with the homes that were burning. We had to use hoselines. Units had hooked up to hydrants. We needed a lot of water. We tried to cool down one house that was on fire because if we could cool that house down, it will keep from sending embers to the other houses down the road and it worked in some areas.

I was on the Panorama fire in 1980. I never thought I would go through that again. The difference as far as this fire was concerned, the Panorama fire basically burned in one area headed north. This fire went in every direction. It extended further into the city. Seeing all the homes burning that there was nothing we could do about it. You try to make a stand on one house and 10 more were burning.

Captain Mike Bollinger, San Bernardino City Fire Department
We made sure we had four lines that we can take off at any time. We have two 150-foot lines on the front that we draped across the bumper. If we need to pull 300 feet down a side yard to protect the house and the backyard, if we needed 250, 300, we could take the one, pull it, and just connect the other one and we’re good to go. It worked out. It was a lot of work.

I looked up. Someone said what time is it? I said I don’t have a clue. I looked at my watch. I have on a light on it. It’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon. We’ve been going constantly since 9:18 in the morning.

That area that we anchored hold in, we had it pretty much secured in that area, so we were down to about an eighth of a tank of fuel and I let the chief know. He said go refuel, get some food for yourselves. When we went to get fuel at 6’s (fire station 6), two other companies showed up. We started exchanging stories of what they did and what we did. What that did was actually fire everybody up, brought the morale up. Everybody was fatigued and tired and hungry, but that really helped as far as getting back on the line.

Photo By Mike Meadows Firefighters are about to reposition as heavy fire moves upslope to the Lake Arrowhead area. This fire killed six people, destroyed 940 residences and burned 91,281 acres. At the height of the fire, 4,211 firefighters were assigned.

Firefighter Bruce Arviso, San Bernardino City Fire Department
They told us to go up the canyon initially on the first attack and it didn’t seem too bad. Then all of a sudden, it just blew up and the wind just started swirling and just blackened down on us. We backed out. It blew past us. But one of the weirdest things was the spalling of the roof tiles. We thought it was ammo going off.

There were houses burning and we actually kept the cars cool in front of the house. There were downed power lines. A lot of things were charged. I shocked myself pretty good on a chain link fence trying to put a fire out and it gave me a pretty good jolt. Houses were energized. One of the last fires we went on was up in the attic and I thought we could attempt to make a save. We knocked it down and I put my BA (breathing apparatus) on and tried to go in, and you could feel the house was energized. Because you were wet, you could feel a little electrical charge. They told me to back out and we went defensive on it. That was a weird feeling and I was frustrated because I wanted to go in and try to save something. You know it’s hard when you see a family there crying.

Battalion Chief Gary Bush, San Bernardino County Fire Department
In Southern California, we have our burning periods that are typically during the day and that’s where we see most of our fire activity. Typically, from 10 o’clock in the morning to maybe 6 o’clock in the evening until the temperatures start going down and humidities go up. We had most of our real drastic fire spread, structure threats later in the evening hours and through the night.

As the fire was moving east to west, the fire behavior specialist was tracking that fire at a spread rate of half a mile per hour. When the Santa Ana wind event came up and aligned with the fire and the hills, it bumped up to a two-mile-per-hour fire spread rate, so more than doubled. It ran eight miles in four hours from the west end of Rancho Cucamonga into the City of Laverne in LA County.

The wind-driven ember problem really aggravated the structure threat because those embers would just bend themselves into any attic vent it could find, inside a wood pile, in patio furniture. Anything it could do and try to get established fire wise, it would do. It was just absolutely incredible.

A motorist was coming down a real steep driveway. The fire spotted out right behind the house. The wind just blew the fire right over him and it consumed his vehicle. He had critical second- and third-degree burn injuries. One of the photographs the wind had blown out of his car, they found in the City of Pomona actually, several cities over.

I observed a huge fire whirl coming off the side of one of these hills. This whole hillside was just fully involved with fire. Active structure protection going on in the Lytle Creek area and this is just one of those things you don’t see very often, but they talk about in the textbooks, the fire whirls coming off, this thing landed right next to the freeway. The winds just bent that fire over laterally and it blew across six lanes of freeway.

At about 3:30 in the morning, this fire came up and over into the Summit Valley Area of the high desert, jumped Highway 138. I had about a five-mile-wide line of fire, about 60-foot flame lengths, wind driven to 40-mile-an-hour winds, so we had a significant structure threat developing in the Summit Valley area and the south end of the city of Hesperia. I lived about a half mile away, so part of my evacuation orders included my own neighborhood.

Courtesy of CDF, USFS and Dore Davis Design

Battalion Chief Marc Peebles, Mountain Division, San Bernardino County Fire Department
When we had a fair amount of knockdown, we had two air tanker drops that came right behind us and probably no more than 75 yards to the north of us. It ripped off the top of one tree and actually carried it over the top of my crew about another 40 feet. My water tender crew got nailed pretty hard with the drop and knocked them down. Fortunately, they weren’t injured.

The sky cranes were working very hard. They would knock out the crown fire, knock out the tree fire and then the ground fuels were so hot that it re-ignites. We knew it was going to keep moving towards those structures and that line construction was going to be very important, which was carried out by folks from the dozers and the Forest Service.

Captain Jody Brumm, San Bernardino County Fire Department
The problem we have now, the trees are weakened from the drought and that makes them more susceptible to the bark beetle. If the tree is healthy, has sap, the bark beetles try to get in and the tree just pushes them out. The trees don’t have the wherewithal to push them out. I had 11 trees taken off my property in August. I was splitting the wood in September by hand. That’s unheard of, usually when you cut a tree down – and they had been living a month before. They were green a month before they were cut. So within two months, I was splitting them by hand and because there was no moisture left in these trees. Sap was not even coming out of them.

Captain Jim Johnstone, Lake Arrowhead area – Mountain Battalion Station 91, San Bernardino County Fire Department
The firing crews were responsible for putting the fire down. The holding crew follows up, puts any spot fires out, so they were critical in putting that fire out the couple of times that it did spot. We made it all the way around. This was a particularly dicey firing operation because we had to fire below houses. Ordinarily, you fire right off of the road and bring it down. In this case, we were trying to save structures, which fortunately, we were able to do by taking fire down below it.

We weren’t getting supplied well as far as food, supplies and communications in particular. This is an area to improve I think that we really in the fire service need to focus on. We talk about LCES (Lookouts, Communications, Escape routes, Safety zones), yet we didn’t have proper communications in the mountain areas until probably Friday, which left three days of many of the crews on different frequencies. I’m not faulting anybody because of the size and the complexity of this deal, but that’s basic and we need to improve.

The fire front went through Hook Creek. We stayed away from the front of the fire that’s going through an area that has poor water, poor access and houses built 10 feet apart. It was already identified as a very huge problem area for firefighting.

Once the fire front did pass through, we were able to do some flanking operations and line construction. That was my primary role to assign people to structure protection and, when possible, line construction because that’s ultimately what saves the houses.

I’d like to stress that we really need to encourage local fire service people becoming part of incident management teams. It’s the same analogy as when you’re in the thick of it and you’re counting on your aircraft to put the fire out, to really help you, that’s usually the time you lose your aircraft and then you have to rely on yourself. Fortunately, we had experienced people who’ve been all over California fighting fires that were in the area available to make operational decisions. If they hadn’t been allowed to do those previous assignments, we would have been in a world of hurt because the incident again wasn’t able to support us operationally.

Photo By Gene Blevins Heavy fire feeds on dry vegetation and humidity near six percent close to Lake Arrowhead. The fire pushed into dead, dying, diseased forests of the San Bernardino National forest and communities located there.

Captain Rick McClintoch, San Bernardino County Fire Department
We’d go out around the back of this house where the fire was coming from the east and we tried to knock it down. The fire would push us back around to the front of the house and we would hide behind this little brick wall for 30 seconds or so. Then we’d take off again and try it again.

It was an intense 45 minutes to an hour of firefighting. We were ordered to get out of that street and we couldn’t because our egress was blocked because the bushes around the bridge were on fire. The road was on fire. I told our BC that we’ll just shelter in place, we’ll be OK. And luckily, we didn’t lose any more structures, didn’t get anybody hurt.

After the fire blew through the Hook Creek area, we went up there to make an attack with a 112-inch line and another one-inch line to knock the structures down to keep it from getting in the crown. It got up into the top of the trees and into the crown and away it went. It ran us out of there. We took off, cut the hoselines off the engine, ran and jumped on the engines and took off and then we came back later.

There wasn’t any power when we got up to Arrowhead at night, it was real confusing on which way you’re going. During the day, it was just as bad because the smoke was intense. This fire would take off and it would burn for an hour and it would go south or north for an hour, and it would stop. Then, for an hour just lay down, and it would go another 90 degrees. It would go west for an hour against the wind. It was just screaming against the wind up there in Arrowhead. Huge flame lengths, several hundred feet. The most amazing thing I’ve ever seen so very intense.

Battalion Chief Dan Odom, San Bernardino County Fire Department
I flew every day trying to get a feel for where we could try to stop this thing and every place we tried to stop it, it was there before we could get resources, put in the dozer lines, handlines and do the burning.

It was wind-driven flame lengths over 150, 200 feet tall in some areas, fire whirls, fire storms blowing brands and smoke that was just incredible. It was moving at a rate of – at one point, I was on the freeway trying to keep up – three to four miles an hour, the fire itself, devouring everything in its path. We had 40-mile-an-hour winds that were fanning that, so it was pretty horrendous. The guys just did an outstanding job – everybody that I had, and I didn’t have local people. I had people from San Francisco. I had people from Sacramento, from Ventura County, from well out of the area, and they just did an outstanding job of saving structures, protecting property. They just did a great job.

The morning this fire went over Highway 18, again, probably some of the most horrendous fire behavior I’ve ever seen, 40-, 50-mile-an-hour winds blowing over the top of the rim which is this area, reinforced area. Flame lengths in excess of 150, 200, sometimes 300 feet.

Everywhere I went there were just incredible stories about how this strike team saved this row of houses and they just dug in and made a stand there. You’d go down the road a little ways; another strike team dug in.

Normally, we plan about 12 hours out. We were planning 24 hours out. In the next six or eight hours, the fire was where they were planning for the next operational period.

We were just behind all the time because the fire was moving faster than we could plan. We finally figured it out after a few days and then we were able to plan ahead a little bit and get resources moved into the right areas. Put dozer lines in where they could do some good rather than putting them in and getting them burned over halfway completed. The hand crews get in there, do some good burning for us and get some depth.

That’s the whole thing with the burning. We burn, normally, out a strip of land that’s 150, 200 feet, and a normal wildland fire will bump up to that and slow down. This we needed thousands of feet to be able to do any good. The intestinal fortitude I call it that these men and women showed. They would be running. I mean just the sheer size of fire, they would be moving from one point to the fire having running firefights for 24, 36, 48 hours and still we had to pry them off the line at some point, tell them you know you need to rest. I’ve had guys that say, hey, we can go. You know, Chief, we can go another few hours. We just had to get to a point where we had to pull those people off. They were totally exhausted.

Division Chief Mike Conrad, San Bernardino County Fire Department
The problem was as the fire got closer and closer with the heat generated coming up that slope, the winds were easily 60 to 80 miles an hour. When it hit the top, it just kept on going. There wasn’t any place you were going to work it from. You were just going to get out of its way and then work the flanks.

I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to protect this forest and I’ll tell you, I had a lump in my throat when I saw that thing come over the top. I’ve been in a lot of fires, 30 years worth, but with the dead timber and the way the sheer volume of fire we had, I just felt like we were going to lose the entire forest and everything in it. That was the way it looked for a couple of hours. The only thing that saved us, in my opinion, is that we got a weather change. That moisture that came with that cold front eventually was what brought the fire back to the ground and allowed us to finally work it. The conditions that we were experiencing that morning, if those had continued, we would have lost – I’m convinced we would have lost a large part of Lake Arrowhead and possibly Crestline.

Everybody was concerned about the dead trees. This was just a good old brushfire. It burned some dead trees out in here, but for the most part it never got into the dead timber. This was just a typical Santa Ana wind-driven chaparral fire. A lot of this area burned in 1980 in the Panorama fire. You’re talking about stuff that’s 24 years old. A lot of this country all around these two mountains, Mc Kinley on Highway 330, all the grass has been burned off a dozen times in the last 20 years, both sides.

Division Chief Pat Dennen, San Bernardino County Fire Department
The newer communities really by virtue of development with fire-resistant construction, tile roof, stucco, block walls – these communities survived.

We lined up at each of the structures. We deployed handlines. We had lines at hydrants not attached to engines. No one was committed. At any given time, we had escape routes and we had all the structure protection things done correctly with vehicles backed in, everybody in protective clothing, avenues for safe refuge, deployment areas as well as safe areas. We held our ground and we were successful at pushing that fire up and over that community along the hillside and kept it out just by virtue of very aggressive fire suppression techniques with some very highly trained people.

I want to emphasize on this entire fire and the Grand Prix fire; modern fire suppression techniques had very little impact on that fire. I’m absolutely convinced this is no different than the 63,000-acre Willow fire we had in 1999 or the Malibu fire in ’93. Mother Nature put those fires out and all we did was help steer it and protect communities.

Even though there was a tremendous structure loss, it could have been much greater. There’s an estimated 80,000 structures on the top of this mountain and overall total combined loss, we had 993, of which 400 were down in the city. If you take that number out compared to 80,000 potential, we did pretty good. I’m here to tell you as much heroism that went out there for protecting structures, we really didn’t do anything. We had very little effect on perimeter control. It was a Mother Nature-driven fire. Then we had the weather change and some low-pressure areas come in. The Santa Ana winds quit. A cold front brought snow and that’s what helped put the fire out. I’d love to tell you we’re heroes and we did it, but I’m being honest. We didn’t. We helped steer it and we protected structures, but there was very little perimeter-control success.

In Lake Arrowhead and the area of Big Bear, there is several billion dollars in property valuation. We did evacuate the whole mountaintop. Roughly 60,000 people were evacuated, which is unheard of. Having worked this county my entire career, never, ever have I thought that we would evacuate that entire mountaintop and we were successful in evacuating 60,000-plus people off that mountain.

Photo By Gene Blevins A bulldozer operator works to create a fire line at the Verdale incident. This fire started in LA County and spread into Ventura County. The fire burned 8,650 acres and destroyed only one structure. There were 883 firefighters assigned.

Assistant Chief Dan Whirl, San Bernardino County Fire Department
I believe it was Sunday morning when we had fire totally around our camp 3,000 or 4,000 feet away. You had fire in the brush all around you. At that point that’s when the fire also made the run down into the City of Rialto and also it moved and joined into the Old fire, circled the community of Devore Heights. I think some of the key points that we had were the evacuations. Of course, we started with mandatory evacuations of Lytle Creek and then soon after that, it went community by community working west to where we most likely had a population of I would say at least 50 to 70,000 people evacuated. They felt every community within the National Forest in the San Bernardino County area was threatened. There’s a pass into Palm Springs and then the San Vicento Mountains start there, so they felt like the wind could just drive the fire and keep on driving it southwards. I think that was a little stretched, but any possibility was being considered because we were seeing things happen that we’ve never seen before.

The Old fire did follow the footprint of the Panorama fire. It just exceeded it immensely.

Chief Tom Wellman, Mountain Division, San Bernardino County Fire Department
Mountain Area Safety Task Force (MAST) was an organization that was put together when the epidemic in the death of the trees was beginning to be seen in proportions obviously that we have never seen in the past. We originally addressed MAST to look at mechanisms to reduce fuels, how to get contractors, how to do fuel reduction on private land as well as on the forest land, just a lot of the logistical stuff.

It was established probably in October, November of 2002. It was in response to the tree mortality. Last spring, we put together an organization with an incident action plan. We had ICs and they put together an operation section for which the three of us that were ICs for the fall incident were all attached to the operations section. We actually built a lot of the planning structure that went into the community protection. The evacuation plan, we never ever expected a fire of this magnitude. What we thought we were dealing with was traditional issues where we would have basically a one-point fire that would threaten the community at a specific point. We had built the evacuation plan with the thought that if fire was over here, we were going to use this highway. If the fire was over here, we were going to use that highway as evacuations. We never thought both fires would get there at the same time.

Because we had done the planning for it, we had a process already in place. We had a dress rehearsal about six weeks prior to this fire, a little fire down here below Running Springs, which was called the Bridge fire. When we went and met with the communities we mentioned that it was a dress rehearsal. In that fire, we were evacuating probably about 1,200 to 1,400 folks. We had met with these communities numerous times and one of the common themes that we shared was that this potentially was going to be a season of inconvenience. All that planning is really what, from my perspective I mean it’s kind of awkward because here you lost almost 1,000 structures but you think it’s a success. In the IC’s position, it was really good to be able to implement a lot of what we had already been planning for.

We had a National Type I incident management team come in. They had to interface with what we had done as far as all the pre planning which I think was a tremendous benefit. The team themselves were very receptive to everything that we had already done. We in the fire service make a habit out of pre-planning everything. This is the very first time I think we ever really pre-planned a wildland fire. I think you can see the benefits of it – even though we lost 1,000 structures, it was a drop in the bucket of what we could have lost.

Special Operations Battalion Chief Dave Williams, San Diego City Fire Department
I believe my initial request was for 10 additional strike teams. That went anywhere from 20 to 30 strike teams off and on during the morning as conditions increased. I was told there were no more resources at that time. They were being ordered and they would be en route, but knowing the system as we do, we were looking at a 12- to 18-hour minimum response time for apparatus that wasn’t already dispatched to the Cedar fire.

I got my initial five units deployed into three separate areas on three streets and they were actively engaged in extinguishing and protecting structures. They were attempting to control the involved structures, keep it from spreading to the adjacent. At one point, I had ordered them to pick everything up. I needed them elsewhere because the fire was moving further inland to the west. They kept protecting structures as they went.

Photo By Gene Blevins An air tanker drops retardant to protect a house near Simi Valley/Chatsworth. The Simi incident burned 108,204 acres, destroyed residences, 278 other structures and required the response of 1,575 firefighters.

We had 30 engines working with a total of 120 firefighters. In Branch 6, we received two separate bus loads of firefighters with their PPE. We deployed 70 additional firefighters into the area and at some points we had eight to ten people on an engine company working.

Los Angeles County Engine 36
Engine 236 was at the Simi incident. Engine 36 was still in quarters when the fire started to come into the LA county area out of Padua Hills, which is near Claremont. We were dispatched. Engine 36 was dispatched on the strike team to go out to the Padua incident. Engine 36 never, ever goes on strike teams. When they put us on the strike team, I told the guys, let’s go before they change their minds.

We were supposed to meet at LA County Station 62, but as soon as we got there, the fire was already on top of us. They were deploying us to structure protection as we came in, so we really didn’t have a chance to form up.

We had 150 flame lengths, minimum 150, 200-foot flame lengths. Wind was 50 to 60 mile an hour. When we first got to the structure we were going to protect, the winds were so strong that as soon as the engineer opened up his door, the wind caught it and snapped the straps that hold the door. The door swung around and smashed the windshield. That’s how powerful the winds were blowing. I’ve seen embers before, but the embers were about sizes of quarters that were flying horizontal through the air and it was something.

I remember seeing the fire on the news because we had not got deployed yet. The houses that were inside of housing tracts that were being burned up and I remember thinking how could that be possible. Actually getting out on the fire itself, there were chunks of embers the sizes of quarters that were flying horizontal through the air. We were having trouble with those embers getting into the roof beds, underneath the roofs or just anywhere to start little fires. And the Padua Hills Theater that became our major problem was we had numerous starts because the embers would get in underneath the rafters and other areas and have multiple starts.

All of us carry our brush gear and changes of underwear and socks. By the fifth day, we ran out of things and the weather started to change. It went from being very hot, to turning cold at night to where we were freezing. Some of us stayed on the fires lines with very little to keep us out of the cold. When we had a chance, we’d go to the stores to buy thermals or whatever. I want to give kudos to WalMart. They took care of us. They wouldn’t let us buy anything. They let us have whatever we needed for use on the fire lines.

Battalion Chief David Carolon, Los Angeles County Fire Department
They told me that I would be a plans chief on the next incident or an LA County agency rep if it occurred outside the county. As the night rolled on, I was watching the progress of the fires and I knew my parents lived in the San Antonio Heights above Upland and that the Grand Prix fire was approaching that area, I had done pretty much everything they needed me to do and I asked if it was all right if I took off. I would be still be available on page and cell phone. They said sure. I drove to my parents’ house in San Antonio Heights, which is just outside Claremont where the Engine 236 crew ended up doing their structure protection and I was alarmed by what I saw.

I saw a large, dynamic fire that was moving quickly and it was spotting in front of itself. I saw what we characterize as extreme fire behavior.

I got to my parents’ house and my parents I don’t think appreciated the seriousness of what was happening. My mom was in the front yard and she said, David, this is very spectacular. Mom, it’s about to get a whole lot more spectacular. I told them to get some flashlights, to put their stuff in the cars and move the cars out of the garage because we’re about to lose electricity. I asked my mom to go to my brother’s house, which was a few miles away, and she refused to go. I told my dad to put on a long-sleeve shirt and long pants because he was standing there in shorts and a T-shirt and he thought, really? You know they didn’t appreciate what was going to happen. I said, Dad, put on some long clothes. We positioned some garden hoses, put a ladder on the roof and prepared for what I knew what was about to happen.

I knew that the fate of my parents’ home rested on two things. One, the wind, and we didn’t end up at the head of the fire and, number two, the response by the fire department. The fire started getting closer and closer, raining sparks onto the property. I had my gear on when a strike team from Orange County arrived and firefighters from the Santa Ana Fire Department and the Huntington Beach Fire Department pulled lines. Just as the fire front arrived, they arrived like the cavalry and these guys did a great job. I was thrilled to see them. They pulled lines through my parents’ yard, kicked over fences to get access to a neighbor’s yard and they did a great job defending the homes in that area. As the fire blew through and I was, of course, assisting them, they picked up their stuff to move on to the next group of homes.

If you could draw an analogy with war, what was happening in Claremont would have been an Army sweeping through an area destroying everything. What happened in San Antonio Heights was more like an artillery barrage where it would take a house here, a house there. It wasn’t predictable in the sense that the these homes were burning as a result of burning material in the air that was falling onto them.

Battalion Chief Greg Jones, Air and Wildlands Division, Los Angeles County Fire Department
It’s very difficult for South Operations and the Office of Emergency Services (OES) to do a perfect job of sending resources to all these different fires. Usually, the first big fire gets a good response. The next big fire gets a pretty good response, but then the subsequent fires get a leaner response. It gets thinner and thinner and thinner.

Back in the ’93 firestorms, we the Altadena fire, the Kinaloah fire that occurred and it happened in the morning. There was a big response and that afternoon the Laguna fire started and Orange County had sent strike to teams to Altadena and we lost homes up to just five or six miles from there. Orange County was lean and then the Laguna fire, they lost 450 something homes in Laguna. The problem with San Diego is the other fires were burning at the same time before that fire started.

We were stripped everywhere. There was no 10% anywhere. Simi didn’t have 10%. Nobody had 10%. It was like turkey after Thanksgiving.

Photo By Mike Meadows One of 545 structures lost in the San Bernardino city and county area due to the fire, which burned 7,725 acres and was blamed for six fatalities. Units had to try and get ahead of the fire and used the concept of anchor and hold to knock down the fires within structures to prevent additional embers and spotting.

Battalion Chief Vince Pena, Air and Wildlands Division, Los Angeles County Fire Department (Camp Section)
Two battalion chiefs run the camp section divided in half. Greg Jones is the other chief. He has some inmate crews which California Department of Corrections works in line with LA County Fire Department to run inmate crews. I had the paid crews, which are FSA’s Fire Suppression Aide, which are just like patterned after the U.S. Forest Service hand crews.

We have three paid camps, and I run them, plus the heavy equipment unit, which is, comprised eight dozer operators. Each dozer operator has a transport driver and a swamper, so it’s a three-man team. So we have eight of those teams. That’s heavy equipment. We have a probation camp that falls under my realm and the probation is like an inmate, but younger. It’s just like an inmate crew in that they’re 18, 19 years old and there is one probation camp. Greg has the five CDC camps, which are California Department of Correction. Adult inmates, state inmates, man them. I have four camps with crews. Greg has five and then I have heavy equipment. The sheriffs have another inmate camp, All in all we have roughly 32 to 34 crews between paid and inmates, three paid crews and 30 to 31 inmate crews is what the county staffs so 32 to 34 crews.

Ten camps. Seven are inmate and three are paid and they’re all throughout the county. The head camp is located in La Pinata. The two BCs run right out of Camp 2. We basically have a little dispatch center. Whenever the wildland requests come to command and control in East LA, they immediately call us and tell us what they need. If they need anything more past a first or second, then we’ll dispatch and tell them what we’re going to send.

A first-alarm brushfire in the county gets four crews and then two flight crews. They’ll get three superintendents, which are the captains that run the crews. Superintendents are just like the engine captains, but they’re specifically wildland. On the second, you’ll get four more ground crews, no more flight crews, and then we’ll send you either Greg or I. One of the BC’s from the camps will go out on the second.

In the morning, we got out there on the line; we couldn’t even do perimeter control. We had to do structure protection. The division assigned us, sent all our crews to do structure protection and to help out the engines prep homes. About 10 o’clock, pushing into 11 o’clock in the morning, it just started roaring. We couldn’t get back to do any perimeter control that day. It was just roaring and you could see the extreme fire behavior. Three to four days of having that heavy fire established in the brush and then seeing the heat in the direction of the unburned fuel, dried dead fuel and it’s unburned fuel and now that wind is drying it out worse. When the embers start hitting, the spots are just spreading it uncontrolled. It’s extreme and we saw all the signs of extreme fire behavior that day.

We started between 11 o’clock and noon; we started losing the homes. It hopped Lytle Creek. We kept it on one side. We were keeping it on the south side but between 11 and 12 o’clock, it hopped right in the spot where we knew it was going to be the most vulnerable and sure enough, it hopped. Then we started losing homes after that. That day we lost 21 homes in Lytle Creek and we were working with Type III engine company strike teams and Type I engine company strike teams one of which was an LA County strike team.

There was this one place this guy had a great big garage and storage facility. He must have had a quarter-million dollars in old antique cars. I had two crews down there working moving cars in a safe area, trying to cut brush around the structure. The firemen started treating that place like it was their own because they were just pristine cars that were all rebuilt all in mint condition. We wound up losing that place three hours later. It breaks their hearts. When I was in San Diego with these crews, they were still heartbroken over that because we were talking about how we had a lot of good saves. They said but we lost one good one.

When you get these kind of conditions extreme fire behavior where the smoke is down to the ground. The wind is whipping. You’ve got to wear goggles or you’re going to be out of service. Once your eyes are bad, then you’re done. It’s spotting intensely and its extreme fire behavior and the heat hits before you can even see the flames. It looks like its midnight. It’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon because now it’s blocking out the sun and the smoke comes down and the header is plume driven, a plume dominated fire. Now the plume controls the weather and the header, the plume comes down to the ground. So that’s much the conditions we had at Lytle Creek.

They brought everything that flew with a county emblem on it. Two SuperScoopers, the two Black Hawk water droppers and the two 412 water droppers, which is basically everything that drops water for the county. They brought a command ship, so we had seven LA County aircraft.

At 4 o’clock in the morning, I think, Captain Shell was talking about the weather a little bit. That’s why I asked him how bad was this compared to extreme and high risk as to what he’s seen in his 20 years. I’ve been on 22 years and that’s right up there with any of them. We had gusts of 80 miles an hour at 4 o’clock in the morning in that Claremont area, with 90-degree temperatures and humidity of zero to 4%. That’s as extreme as it gets.

Our whole premise is you are in position so when the weather and the topography lends an opportunity, you’re in position to jump on it. And that’s what we did at Webb Canyon. They did a firing operation and stopped with our paid crews running the firing and with support from everything that I mentioned that was flying: the SuperScoopers, the Black Hawks, the 412s supporting the firing operation. We stopped it right on the border of La Verne, Webb Canyon. We did the firing operation, which stopped the westward advancement of the west flank of that fire, put that fire out which was surprising because it was pretty dramatic.

Rod Ballard, Division Chief, San Diego City Fire Department
I flew the fire, started with the south flank. We had over a five-mile fire front burning towards the southwest part of the city and vegetation that was actually coming through the east part of the Marine Corps base at Miramar and we had another five-mile front moving to the west towards Scripps Ranch. We flew around it. I was above when the fire hit the first homes that were lost.

Chief Bill Clayton from CDF actually ran a model for us for Scripps Ranch. His projection was if we had fire and conditions like we had that day, we would need four air tankers, helicopters, eight hand crews and approximately 130 engine companies. We could expect to lose 125 to 150 homes and that projection was run a year ago August. It ran the fuel moistures because we are in part of a four-year drought here in California.

In my plan, I had fuel moistures of a year ago. I knew that now they were going to be even dryer. I flew back to our dispatch center. Because of the high volume of radio traffic in effect, I was in a police helicopter and we had to switch between police and fire frequencies. I didn’t have a telephone to call them directly because of the noise factor of the helicopter. I said I need you to fly me back, we need to put together a long-range plan on what we’re going to do with this fire.

I can tell you that we quite frankly lost accountability. We couldn’t tell you who was where. That was never a plan but it’s just the reality of what happened. We actually made another branch to make sure the fire didn’t go any farther on the northern portion of the Scripps Ranch area. They wanted us to take out further, but I just didn’t have the companies to do it. We lost 313 homes in that portion of the city of San Diego.

What I’ve been told is we went down to at one point two engines available for over 400 square miles serving 1.2 million people. We also had a heavy rescue unit – we were sending ambulances to reports of fires to investigate. We sent a heavy rescue unit to a vehicle fire and the police called back and said the two vehicles close to it are catching on fire. They had fire extinguishers. We had people in cars that had hose that were hooking up to fire hydrants and going off the hydrant pressure and using the hose to fight fire.

Early on in the incident while I was flying, I called for 20 strike teams or 100 additional engines for Scripps Ranch. Later on, Chief Peake from the South branch called for 100 engines or 20 strike teams for Tierrasanta. In total we called for 40 additional strike teams or 200 extra engines to serve the City of San Diego. We got none.

This fire burned all the way to Interstate 805, which is still a considerable distance from Interstate 15, a good three miles. Fortunately, in there, that’s the area of the landfill and a freeway and a water treatment facility. It had a reduced amount of fuel. If it would have jumped over Interstate 805 at Highway 52, there’s an area called Tecalody Canyon which is part of preserve area, and the west end of it is Mount Soledad, which is in La Jolla, one of the most affluent communities. If it had hit Soledad, what would have stopped the fire? To the west, only the Pacific Ocean. We would have lost lives. That portion of San Diego is much older, overgrown, overbuilt.

We got lucky. It’s kind of hard to say, we burned almost 350 homes, but if hit Tecalody Canyon, we had nobody to send there.

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