San Diego Fires - Part II
By Paul Vircsik

Hi Neighbors,

For a slideshow of the 2003 firestorm in San Diego, Click Here.

To view a map of the fire locations, Click Here.  (Use your browser's back button to return.)

Firestorm 2003 has subsided.  I am back to the normal schedule.  Yesterday we had 7 calls including 4 wake ups.  I was thinking while driving home after the third that I needed to write this second part and that during this shift we had responded on everything but a structure fire.  I was relating this to my crew as we responded on our 4th wake up call at 5 AM, a structure fire.  Someone on the fire said something interesting.  When a war is over, the armies come home and stand down to clean and overhaul their gear and take a much needed rest.  When firefighters get released from a major campaign fire, some go home, some stay, but all go back to their normal work schedule and must respond to emergencies while cleaning and repairing their gear.  The public loves its heroes again but we do what we do because it is our job and we are trained and love doing it.  A lot of the real heroes, the citizens who do not do this daily but responded out of instant need always seem to go unthanked.  We should thank them with the same intensity as we thank the professionals.

I wanted to write about this San Diego County fire not from a San Diego point of view but as a fire that with eyes closed could be placed in our community as food for thought.  Numbers of homes lost and acreage burned doesn't mean much from thousands of miles away.  It's hard to relate to.  Personalize it by imagining it in our neighborhood and the fire's destruction can readily be felt.  Read this if you like and glean from it what you want.  It was a terrible event and I got to use all my skills and learned some new ones. Please excuse the brevity ha ha.

The Monday morning quarterbacking and finger pointing has already started from those not even around to witness the event.  Most without a shred of fire related background and of course the ones that yell the loudest always get the most undeserved press.  I don't' know maybe it makes their own life seem more worthwhile if someone else's life is lower on the hill.  The official investigations started before the fire was contained, some redone as the fire burned through areas already scorched.  Wildland fires normally burn with a pattern like a hot air balloon, the basket being the area of ignition.  The top of the balloon being the head or where the fire is most intense and moving away from the point of origin.  The Cedar fire burned out in different directions at different times because of the weather conditions.  High winds, low humidity and fuels that turn its water into oils to preserve its life in our desert like conditions.  Full reports, and movies made for TV will surely be out by next year.

Attempting to put the fire in an easier scale to fathom, picture yourself in your car starting at the Raton Pass.  Now drive north.  For an hour and a half.  That's how long the fire path is.  It didn't burn this way as seen on the map, but as we drove home, both sides of the freeway as far as you could see was black.  It crossed ten lanes of Interstate 15 and eight lanes of Interstate 8 and 805.  It burned through forest and housing tracts that you would think wild fire would never see.  When it started the temperature for the day was in the high 90s and by weeks end in the mountains it was 45 degrees.  The winds were steady at 20-30 and gusting to 50mph.  When our winds hit Trinidad and the humidity drops to 6 percent, we could witness such conditions.

When we were dispatched at 0830, our station's brush rig was already on the fire for 12 hours.  The fire was at 18000 acres.  By 10AM it was over 120,000.  At one point the entire 50 square mile response area for my department was protected by one pump.  Most other fire department response areas were also stripped to this degree.  We were extremely lucky that other house fires were not reported during this time period.  As it was, all medical aids normally given an engine and an ambulance were dispatched with an ambulance only.  This response level lasted for 3 days.  Sometime during our first day we were in a mobile home park protecting the homes in smoke too thick to see from the front to the back of the homes.  Then one exploded into fire.  We suspect that somehow an ember had gotten into a vent and within five minutes it was gone.  All we could do was protect the exposed homes on either side and on one side we were unsuccessful even with three engine companies.  After about 3 hours into this fire all of us were weaker from breathing so much carbon monoxide.  Our muscles suffered cramps from the lack of food and water as the heat and long hours sapped our bodies.  My crew spent five days on the fire starting in Blossom Valley and moving wherever asked to by our leader finally ending up in Julian.  We had two nights in camp, the rest on the line fighting fire or protecting homes with back fires.  My engine was very near to Wynola when the firefighter went down.  I know the reason but will not say until the official report is posted.

From the photos you can see on this web site: it is evident that the fire was enormous.  When the fire was first reported, it was too late in the day to send state contracted aircraft.  Fixed wing and rotor aircraft do not fly at night, in instrument flight conditions (bad weather) on fires, or in winds over 20mph because it is too dangerous to do their job effectively so close to the ground for obvious reasons.  Terrain, wind sheers, fire, etc.  From the air it was also evident that until the weather changed aircraft would be useless.  Access in and out of the area was controlled by law enforcement at the Incident Commanders direction.  Evacuations were sometimes uncontrolled leaving us one time to let homes burn because of the vehicle congestion.  Leaving in ways and directions other than directed to by those controlling the evacuation only causes undue concern for the person's whereabouts placing resources in jeopardy needlessly.  Especially if you are known to do so without direction.  It also causes liability issues to those owning the land that the route was taken.  If hurt on that land, I am sure some would sue for damages.  There simply was not enough fire and police to move into the areas threatened.  We are lucky to have a plan in effect on our ranch to at least start the ball rolling.  I can't think of any other city or town where the members all get to see the plan ahead of time.  The wheres and whens simply must be left for the event.

As we drove through some areas, all the homes were intact.  Drive around the corner and 7 or 8 were fully involved.  The fire burned so quickly over some parts that the leeward side of hills was untouched, still green today.  Others burned and reburned as the winds changed.  We had to take refuge in one home we guarded and abandon our lines until the fire passed, then go back out and extinguish any parts of the building on fire.  Water was not wasted on brush or homes burning that a quick attack would not quench.

Plastic four-rail fencing is all over most the reservation casino areas.  Its pretty and rather sturdy until touched by 1000-degree heat.  It melts and looks like a cartoon landscape.  As we drove through Crest after the fire hit, residents who stayed were already sifting through the ashes in neat little piles.  The town lost water because the water tank melted and caved in.  Now that's hot.

This was a disaster that only occurs when the conditions are perfect.  Thankfully they are not perfect very often.  Below is a list of cities and towns that suffered losses.  The numbers are as of November 2nd not even before containment.  The final numbers won't be out for quite some time as the area to be searched is well over 280,000 acres.  Our ranch is a little over 14,000.

This community of 13,143 east of El Cajon suffered heavy losses with more than 25 homes lost and one citizen death.

Barona Indian Reservation
Lost over 35 homes and two people died as they tried to flee by car.  The casino was used as an overnight shelter for about 3000 residents.

Blossom Valley
Lost over 15 homes including one of our firefighter's home.  He was on duty at the time.

Borrego Springs
Was not affected because the Pines fire burned through last year.  The town served as an evacuation point for hundreds leaving from the mountain areas.

Developed as a cabin resort in the 20s it lost 115 homes in the '71 Laguna fire.  It lost 205 homes to this fire.

Their entire fire department's personnel lost their homes along with at least 83 others.

41 homes lost

Little damage to structures but the police department lost some training grounds

Eucalyptus Hills
At 5:30 AM deputies ordered evacuation by driving streets using bullhorn speakers.  We don't have a count in this area yet due to flare-ups.

Harbison Canyon
Over 285 homes destroyed, a resort and the town buildings including the fire station.  They lost 120 homes in the Laguna fire.

Harrison Park
Lost 150 homes but was able to save a national wolf reserve.

168 homes gone but the fire stopped here mostly due to last year's Pines fire.  The fire ran out of fuel.

The rodeo grounds became a staging area for fire resources (one of three camps set up in the area) and animals evacuated from the fire.  They lost over 60 homes.  Wildcat Canyon that lies between Lakeside and Ramona lost at least 170 homes and the fires largest loss of life, 12 people.  They had no warning as the fire ran through this area in high winds over 50mph.  More are still missing.

60 plus lost

Six businesses and 110 homes burned.

Rincon Indian Reservation
20 homes lost and over 70 percent of their area burned.

San Diego Estates
95 homes destroyed.  The Cedar fire started near here supposedly by a lost hunter signaling for help.  Help came by Sheriff's helicopter at 5:30 PM and picked him up unharmed.

San Pasqual Indian Reservation
67 homes lost and damage to businesses.

Santa Ysabel
Another staging area and evac refuge

One home lost

Scripps Ranch
About 350 homes burned.  This is a community of houses in a city setting.  Most had shake shingle roofs.  The fire spread house to house unabated.

Tierra Santa
32 homes lost.  The same conditions as Scripps.

Valley Center
57 homes believed burned.  The fire is still active there at the time of this writing.

Viejas Indian Reservation
5 lost there and the casino was used an evacuation point.  Viejas was spared mainly because of the fire that burned through there 2 years ago.

Tragically this was where the only firefighter death occurred.  Not to lessen the citizen's losses by any means, he was from Northern California, and died defending a home.  The rest of his crew also suffered burns.

Along with the evacuations of these areas, 12 others that sustained damage also were evacuated.  Some of the areas are still without power and a few are still evacuated due to hazardous conditions and the fire that though contained is still not out.

The response to this fire was immediate, large and experienced.  Within two minutes of the initial report, 10 engines, 2 hand crews and water tenders responded.  In thirty minutes 320 firefighters were on the fire.  It started in rugged terrain inaccessible to vehicles and surrounded by heavy fuel.  Traveling in this terrain would have been difficult even in daylight and night had just fallen.  Evacuations started immediately and pilots stated that the speed this fire was growing they would not be effective.  Agencies could not talk to other agencies because USFS, CDF, and local agencies all use different radio frequencies and the units could not get their radios "cloned" because they were on the fire line and not in fire camp.  Some agencies had other equipment problems due to lack of department funds.  Fire agencies get their monies from taxes and when the public votes down tax increases for fire departments, they get what they pay for.  This should be a message to those who do not support our volunteers, though I only know few.

I am certain that another fire of this magnitude will occur again somewhere sometime.  With luck, it will not be near us.  Thank you to all of you who called and sent emails about my safety, I do not take them lightly.

See you all soon, in December,

Meet the author: Read about Paul Vircsik's background