San Diego Fires - Wednesday
Posted by: Dale Franks
on Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Today, firefighters were still battling the blazes in San Diego. Moderating winds, however, have made their job much easier. We spent the day inside the fire zone, and, while hot-spots abound, and downed power lines make the area moderately dangerous, the task of assessing when to allow residents to return has begun.
The day began with CDF Fire Captain Randy Scales giving me this incident briefing at the Witch Fire Incident Command Center (ICC) at Kit Carson Park in Escondido.
Capt. Scales told me that the Witch Fire burn area now extends over more than 196,000 acres. The hardest hit areas were Rancho Bernardo, Ramona, and down through the San Deguito River Valley to Rancho Santa Fe.
Additionally, the CDF is concerned with the Poomache Fire, which is joining up with the Witch Fire. As the two fires approach each other, they create wind patterns that cause the two fires to merge. So, while much of the effort to the west consists of finding hot-spots and cooling them, or fighting spot fires, the northeast is problematic, since the two fires are merging in a wilderness area with very limited access for fire crews.
The ICC is located at Kit Carson because it is one of the few places in the area with adequate space for parking and logistical support. when you're there, you begin to get an idea of what a massive undertaking that fighting these fires really is. this is especially so when you remember that the Harris and Rice fires each have an ICC of their own.
Another indication of the scale of this undertaking is implied by this picture Chris took at the ICC. Firefighters from Colma, Brisbane, and Daly City are picking up supplies from one of the logistical points set up by the California Conservation Corps. It would be impossible to remember all of the localities represented in this effort. In addition to the agencies above, there were firefighters from Merced, Stockton, Santa Rosa, Marin County, Compton, and too many others to mention.
In addition to distribution points for drinks and ice, there are logistical points to pick up hoses, nomex coveralls, and other supplies. Additionally, mobile dining halls are set up to offer hot meals. The crews are working 24 on/24 off, in theory, although the "24 on" portion has often worked out to 30 or 40 hours working before going back to the ICC for crew rest.
As it happens, "crew rest" is somewhat of a misnomer. A good portion of crew rest consists of maintaining equipment and fire engines. And some of the equipment requires more maintenance than others.
This aging Ford engine is part of the reserve fleet of obsolete equipment that CDF still maintains. Since the Cedar Fire, CDF has upgraded the reserve fleet from "rickety" to..."less rickety". Even with that upgrade, these engines are older than most of the firefighters that are working from them.
In addition to the professional firfighters engaged in this effort, a substantial number of firefighting auxiliaries have been provided by the California Department of Corrections. These prisoners—hopefully the "good prisoners", although one suspects that is a relative term—are trained in simple firefighting and maintenance task, and often provide a lot of strong backs for things like digging fire breaks.
The burn areas are still closed to the general public with police manning the roadblocks into the burn areas. For those authorized to go in, the police give safety briefings about the local conditions, and hazards in the area, such as this one I'm receiving from an Escondido police lieutenant. In this case, downed power lines, as well as hot-spots abounded in the Lake Hodges area.
The burn area is nearly a moonscape of blasted scrub brush. In general, the firefighters don't attempt to fight the brush fires, but concentrate on either diverting the fire from structures, or fighting the fire in a defensible area around them.
Unfortunately, they aren't always successful.
Usually, utility poles support electrical cables. In this case, that situation has been completely turned around, with the bottom fifteen feet or so of this power pole burned completely away. The bottom of this utility pole was still smoldering, with the very bottom still burning slightly.
In the area around Lake Hodges, many utility poles have been burned away, partially or completely, with electrical cables, some of them still live, touching the ground, and protruding into the road. Careful driving is a must in this area.
While residents are not yet allowed back into the area, utility companies have begin the work of surveying the damage, and commencing repairs, or correcting unsafe conditions.
Obviously, utility pole replacement has a high priority, and work crews are beginning the work of doing so. Amusingly, one of the workers in this crew begged us to stick around for a while, promising us that they'd be erecting some "gnarly" poles. Not being exactly sure what would constitute a "gnarly" utility pole, but being fairly familiar with utility poles in general, we declined.
It's good that he seems to really like his work, though.
In addition to the police roadblocks on the outer perimeter, the California National Guard has been called out by the governor. Part of their duties are to man additional checkpoints inside the perimeter, to catch any strays that might make it through the outer cordon.
Interestingly, none of the national guardsmen had magazines inserted in their M16s, nor did they seem to have any magazines visible on their persons. That raises the question of what they would actually do if they ran into malefactors, but they were, however, quite polite and helpful, so perhaps charming bad guys out of their pernicious plans was part of the strategy.
Actually, I suspect their actual role was to observe and report if trouble comes up, at which point fairly massive law enforcement response would be on tap.
Further east, in the Rancho Santa Fe area, there are hot-spots everywhere. Fire crews are widely distributed in the area, with each 4-man pumper crew patrolling to find and eliminate them. Water pressure in the RSF area is still high, so the pumper trucks can refill from hydrants as necessary, and patrol indefinitely.
At this point, we were fortunate to meet a resident of the local area, who is also a real estate broker. He and his wife had evacuated, but had later evaded the evacuation order to return to their house, by sneaking past the checkpoints under cover of darkness. For this reason, they'll have to remain anonymous in this report. Because of his encyclopedic knowledge of the local area, we took him up on an offer to tour the area to survey the damage, which resulted in several of the pictures below.
A number of houses in the Rancho Santa Fe area have been destroyed, such as this one. This house illustrates the essentially unpredictable nature of these fires.
this is the side of the house where the fire approached. The fire came up the San Deguito River Valley, which is immediately behind the point from where this picture was taken. Notice that the house has a fairly large and undamaged yard. A large lawn like this usually creates a defensible space. Unfortunately, in this case, the house was destroyed anyway, as the fire skipped the lawn, and probably ignited the house via flying embers.
This residence also abuts the San Deguito River valley, and the house is literally a few feet from the edge of the valley's canyon wall.
Despite the home's proximity to the fire, it amazingly suffered only minor damage to the garage, shown here. At this point, the house is less than 15 feet or so from the edge of the burn zone.
This is the same house seen from another viewpoint. As you can see, the fire burned straight up the hill, and scorched the outside of the retaining wall. This homeowner was extremely lucky.
This homeowner was not. While this house does not abut the valley itself, a small, narrow canyon—perhaps 30 feet wide—leads off of the valley, straight up to this house. When fire enters a narrow valley, it becomes concentrated, in a fashion similar to a blowtorch. In this case, the blowtorch was pointed directly at the residence. It is a total loss, while all of the neighboring houses are completely untouched.
This is the burn area in the San Deguito valley itself. The fire burned straight up the valley, damaging or destroying several houses on both sides.
Another view of the San Deguito valley shows the edge of the burn area, and the residence of another lucky homeowner, whose house was spared.
Another reason why residents are not being allowed into this area yet are the physical obstacles caused by fallen trees, and other debris. In those cases, a few areas can't be physically reached.
After visiting San Diego for a few days, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and FEMA Director David Paulison departed late this afternoon from the Football Field across the street from the Witch Fire ICC, to return to Washington DC. Unfortunately, we didn't arrive in time to see anything other than the departure of the helicopters.
As the day came to a close, we visited the evacuation shelter at Escondido High School. Most of the evacuees were from Escondido, initially, and with the lifting of the evacuation order there, were able to leave. A few hundred evacuees are still there, however, unable to return to the San Pasqual Valley area or Ramona. The evacuation center is still well supplied, however, with Red Cross and Escondido High School volunteers on hand.
A few evacuees are unable to find shelter in the Gymnasium, so they are sleeping out of doors. Fortunately, although daytime temperatures have been in the 90s, the evenings are cool, but not uncomfortably so. Despite their conditions, apparently spirits are still high.
Some refugees, in fact, seem to be in very high spirits. This fellow, for example, was positively...gay.
I noticed that this evacuee woman had both sides of her abdomen tattooed with matching six-guns. While I did see the pistols, I was not allowed to get a look at the holster.
The evacuation center, of course, lacks all the comforts of home. Conditions, while not bad, are still rather spartan. Still, some of the evacuees managed to bring some comfort with them.
Tomorrow is a brand new day, and officials estimate that in most areas, the evacuation orders will be lifted for the Witch Fire. Residents will be able to return home, assess the damage, and begin rebuilding their lives.
We still have no clear idea of the extent of the damage. It appears, though, that even though these fires were larger than the Cedars Fire of 2003, the structure loss will be about half of what it was then.
Firefighters will still be battling the Rice and Harris fires tonight and tomorrow, but the most damaging fire seems to be winding down, and, where it is still raging, is mainly in uninhabited areas. And, even for the Rice and Harris fires, the end of the windy conditions is making the containment efforts much easier. So, for San Diego, the end, while not yet here, is at least in sight.