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Fighting The Fire: Firefighters Faced Roaring Flames, Extreme Weather

A fire burns near a power line in Rancho Bernardo, October 2007.

Credit: San Diego Police Department

Above: A fire burns near a power line in Rancho Bernardo, October 2007.

Javier Mainer was an assistant fire chief for the city of San Diego when wildfires consumed large swaths of San Diego County in 2007. It was a difficult time for firefighters who were battling fires and extreme weather conditions. Mainer sat down with KPBS Reporter Erik Anderson to remember an October Sunday that seemed like a replay of the Cedar Fire just four years before.

Q: One thing that marked the Cedar fire in 2003, and the Witch and the Harris and all the other fires that burned in 2007, was this incredible wind. It really pushed the flames quickly.

A: The Witch Creek Fire began about 12:30 p.m. in the East County and based upon its progression we thought it might hit the city of San Diego about four or five in the morning. And that’s really when the battle was going to begin. What we saw in 2007 was sustained winds of 45 miles an hour and gusts in excess of 60 miles an hour. So, not only did that move the Witch Creek Fire very quickly, we thought it might hit us at 4 a.m. in the San Pasqual Valley. But about 2 a.m., a completely different fire, the Guejito Fire, began in the San Pasqual Valley and that created its own set of difficulties for everyone.

Q: It wasn’t very long after those two fires came together that they burned into Rancho Bernardo. What happened?

A: Guejito was actually the very first to reach Rancho Bernardo. We had positions in place, we’d deployed them as early as 10 p.m. We were making a lot of evacuations. We ultimately evacuated 200,000 people which, you know, kudos to our law enforcement partners who made that happen. San Diego Police Department did a fantastic job in evacuating people. But we were outgunned at that point. At 2 a.m., I made a request for 50 fire engines through the state mutual aid system and was informed that there were none available. And we would receive zero as a result. I made a similar request at 4 a.m. I got the same answer.

Q: Monday and Tuesday of that week, when the head of the fire basically stopped in Rancho Bernardo and you had a chance to go into that neighborhood, what were you feeling?

A: I did the first drive through on my own. I had been in the command post for 26 hours straight with the first run that I was there. I finally got a chance toward the end of the second day to get out. And I was just really taken aback by the number of homes we had lost. We hadn’t yet repatriated those communities yet. We hadn’t repopulated them. But I got out another day after that, when we had done that. And I ran across so many people that were grateful for what we had done. And I would talk with them and engage with them and get back into my car and tears would begin to flow because I felt a sense of defeat because we hadn’t done as much as I hoped we could do for them. And they lost everything, yet, they were so grateful for the efforts the firefighters put out. They had signs. Firefighters coming through were given drinks and baked goods and things. It was just absolutely incredible, but I had a heavy heart going through there.

Q: A lot of devastation. Homes burned to the foundation, many (of the homes) on some cul de sacs. And then occasionally you would see a home standing. Random.

A: Some of it made sense to me. I could look at it and say why that one. The folks did a great job of defensible space. They’d hardened their home. In other ones, even with all the training I’ve had, I looked at it and said there really is no rhyme or reason. I cannot pinpoint why this particular home survived and others did not.

Q: It has been 10 years since we have had an equivalent firestorm situation. But what have we learned that we will be able to use when that situation happens again?

A: What we really learned in San Diego County from the fire service perspective is, we have to stand on our own. The weather patterns in California are such that the fires begin to the north of us and they start to consume resources in the mutual aid system. And by the time the weather pattern reaches San Diego and we’re asking for help you get 'I don’t have anything to send you. I’m sorry.' So, we have to stand on our own. So, what you see many fire agencies in San Diego County do is add to their fleet of reserve apparatus. Old fire engines that they may have sent to auction are being held back in anticipation that they could always staff those with firefighters in the event of another large disaster coming through.”

Javier Mainer, an assistant fire chief for the city of San Diego when wildfires consumed large swaths of San Diego County in 2007, talks with KPBS reporter Erik Anderson.

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