SoCal Wildfires: View From a Retired Fire Captain

(I was asked to submit an article on the Wildfires burning in Southern California by the good people at FireRescue.com. Read the full article here.)

Watching President Bush arrive on Air Force One to tour the fire damage in the San Diego region adds a punctuation mark to the tragic fire events of the past week. What we’re witnessing is an unprecedented fire event that is testing California in a number of ways.

It started with the Canyon Fire in Malibu, grabbing the attention of local and national media. Later that morning, the Buckweed Fire in Canyon Country above Los Angeles started followed quickly by news the Ranch Fire near Castaic could threaten the town of Piru.

With urgency, fire crews rushed to these potentially catastrophic Santa Ana wind-driven fires. Firefighters were rushing Code 3 to save lives and homes.

As the Los Angeles County fires became established, news of two fires in San Diego County crossed the wires. Ramona was being evacuated, Rancho Bernardo was put on alert.

Later in the day ,the San Diego County Sheriff was quoted saying, “This will be worse than the Cedar Fire.” The Cedar Fire destroyed more than 2,300 homes four years ago, burned 280,000 acres and killed 15 people including Steven Rucker, a firefighter from Novato.

The Harris Fire near Otay Mountain south of the Witch Fire in Ramona became a concern shortly after. This was indeed beginning to look like 2003, with fires burning in two regions of the Southland. An added element to this year’s version was the addition of two fires burning in the Lake Arrowhead area in San Bernadino County.

Stretched resources
Needless to say, resources were, and are still, stretched. Due to high winds, fixed wing aircraft were grounded; the perfect storm was developing. This was forming to become “the big one,” that fire first responders discuss — the career fire, the big show.

These established major fires were quickly joined by the Santiago, Rice, Rosa, Poomacha, Magic and Ammo fires. Each of these posed threats to life and homes. Eventually, more than 500,000 citizens were told to evacuate — an inconceivable number and seemingly an impossible task, a number larger than the Katrina evacuation.

Against all the numbers, order prevailed. Evacuees found shelter, firefighters went to work and the government entities that support both came to the aid.

Firefighters don’t shut down when there’s not enough help, they buck up and get to work. Not one fire had ideal resources. The Harris Fire in particular was extremely under manned. At its peak, the command team was working with only 255 fire personnel with no help in sight. In an ordinary circumstance, that fire alone would have more than 2,000 firefighters and support personnel.

As the Harris Fire worked its way towards the San Diego suburb of Chula Vista, it had to pass through the San Miguel Fire District. San Miguel is a small town just east of Chula Vista. Whatever was coming their way was going to be up to them to confront — no help would be coming no matter how bad it would get.

Fire Chief Augie Ghio was quoted the next day in a television interview, saying, “We’re OK, our guys can handle everything, no complaints.”

When asked if he had slept, he said maybe a half an hour in the past three days. Underscore, no complaints. This man and his firefighters are about community and service.

It’s this spirit that we see from the Governor’s office as well and a similar spirit is apparent in the evacuation centers. As horrible as circumstances were and are, a positive attitude is present.

As a life long Californian, I can only express pride in what I have witnessed. Trees will re grow, homes will be rebuilt. The state has been tested and from my view has passed with flying colors.

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