10 Years Ago: Firestorms Ravaged San Diego County
Monday, October 16, 2017
Photo by Lenny Ignelzi / Associated Press
Steve Vandenberg, senior meteorologist, SDG&E Weather Network
San Diego County endured the largest and most damaging firestorms on record 10 years ago.
Just four years after experiencing extreme conditions during the massive Cedar fire, local officials once again found themselves scrambling to keep more wind-driven flames from devouring the county.
The violent wind-fueled fires destroyed thousands of buildings, charred hundreds of thousands of acres and took 10 lives.
The smoke plumes created by more than seven major fires could be clearly seen from space. In the early days of the firestorm, NASA images showed the white plumes covering wide swaths of land and reaching well out over the ocean.
The memories are seared into retired Fire Chief Pete Scully’s memory. He recently stood at the edge of a sweeping valley near Potrero, looking north.
“This is all dead. This is very fine, dead fuel,” Scully said as he leaned over a short scrubby stand of reddish brown brush.
“This would burn very quickly," he said. "And this is similar to what we were seeing prior to the Harris fire.”
Wind was fire's engine
Scully had been talking about the fuel danger in San Diego’s backcountry for months before this whole valley came face to face with a firestorm being pushed by hurricane-force winds.
“We didn’t even get out of our vehicles because it was so windy. I mean your pick-up truck is just rocking. It’s like being on a ship’s deck. That’s how hard the wind’s blowing,” Scully said.
The winds, low humidity, and a dry winter combined to create the recipe for a perfect storm.
Investigators were never able to pinpoint a cause, but the Harris fire roared to life shortly after 9 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 21. By Monday evening, more than 22,000 acres had been blackened by the wind-driven flames.
Firefighters focused their attention on saving lives and then property if they could. The flames proved to be too fierce in the first two days of the wildfire.
“This fire was laughing at 100 foot of clearance. I watched houses, literally watched houses at the top of Barrett Grade almost explode as the fire front came in,” Scully recalled.
The seasoned firefighter compared the extreme fire behavior to a chimney laid on its side with hot winds pushing flames and heat through valleys. Roads were too narrow to serve as effective fire breaks, so the fire advanced without much resistance.
Lives at risk
The push to save lives trapped one fire crew near a home in Potrero. Scully recalls hearing the pleas for help on his radio as flames burned over the fire truck, but there was little he could do.
“That was … I mean I’m responsible for that as the operations chief. It literally felt like someone had punched me in the stomach,” Scully said.
A dangerous helicopter rescue effort got the fire crew and one resident to safety. Another man died there, however.
By Tuesday night, the fire was threatening homes in Chula Vista. The blaze had already burned more than 70,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of buildings in its path.
By Wednesday, the winds turned and the fire started burning west. It would be another week before the blaze was fully contained. Eight people lost their lives in the firestorm and hundreds lost their homes.
In the end, 90,440 acres were charred by the flames.
Another major fire sparked
Just a few hours after the deadly Harris fire started burning, the winds that were buffeting the entire county sparked another blaze near Santa Isabel. Power lines whipping in the wind ignited nearby trees and grass.
“The fire actually started just over that ridge,” CAL FIRE Battalion Chief Randy Scales said.
He pointed to a set of power lines nearby and gestured beyond them. That is where the watershed for Witch Creek lies.
“There’s another set of power lines that run through that area over there, and it was actually started from a power line from one of the higher tension powers lines,” Scales said.
A CAL FIRE pilot spotted the smoke early Sunday afternoon and made an aerial drop of retardant in an effort to snuff out the blaze. It was not nearly enough.
By Sunday night, the Witch Creek Fire had grown to more than 10,000 acres in size.
Firefighters were working feverishly to protect homes around Ramona. For the most part, they were successful as the head of the fire burned westward north of the mountain village.
Seasoned firefighters knew where the flames were heading. The firestorm was taking a path between the land burned by the Cedar and Paradise fires just a few years earlier. The flames were feeding on fuel rich land that had not burned in 25 years.
The plume of smoke was dark and huge. The winds were pushing the flames east toward Interstate 15 and Rancho Bernardo’s cul-de-sacs.
“Typically, your winds follow the valley,” Scales said. “So, the wind pushed it right through to the San Pasqual Valley.”
Two fires merge
That is where the blaze found San Diego Fire Chief Rick Ballard. His crew was protecting a home on a ridge overlooking the valley. Ballard saw the glow to the east and watched it as the blaze advanced in the middle of the night. It was dark and smoky.
“The first thing that we saw was embers going by us, just like you slap against a campfire. The embers go up, and if you can imagine having your face in that,” Ballard said.
The Witch Creek fire had joined with the Guejito fire by the time the flames found Ballard’s crew. The firefighters were expecting the head of the fire to hit around 4 a.m. The merged fire got there several hours earlier, and it did not take long for it to roar through.
“The wind was taking embers and debris that were the size of a basketball and blowing it for miles. And starting fires miles in front of the fire front that we were trying to attempt to stop,” Ballard said.
The flames made three runs up the hillside Ballard’s crew was defending. The heat and thick smoke forced the crew to seek refuge in a home for a time, but they were back outside battling the flames a short while later. Ballard’s crew saved the house, but not the ones on a nearby ridge.
“The huge factor is the wind. When the wind died down we were able to get to work and finally get the fire to lay down. There are some conditions that are acts of nature that we cannot control,” Ballard said.
By Tuesday morning, the combined fires had scorched 165,000 acres. By midday, close to 200,000 acres had burned and the fire was still only one percent contained; 100 homes burned to the ground in just those three hours.
San Diego suburb devastated
Across the region, hundreds of homes had been lost and parts of Rancho Bernardo were completely burned out. The region looked a lot like the Scripps Ranch neighborhood after the Cedar Fire burned through in 2003. Entire streets were burned out.
San Diego firefighters were overwhelmed.
“At 2 o’clock in the morning, 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,” said retired San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainer.
And as the flames wrecked this suburb, the city’s fire department continued to work.
“I made a similar request at 4 o’clock in the morning. I got the same answer,” Mainer said.
They were on their own. Firefighters focused on saving lives and then saving property.
Residents in 515,000 homes in the path of the flames were asked to get to a safe location. It was the largest evacuation in the county’s history. More than 1,000 families did not have homes to come back to.
“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,” Mainer said.
Firefighters tried to help where they could. If they were losing a home to the flames, they gathered personal items or photos and left them at the curb. They were letting homeowners know they were doing what they could.
Mainer was struck by the capricious nature of the firestorm.
“Some of (the losses) made sense to me. I could look at (a house) and say, why that one. The folks did a great job of defensible space. They’d hardened their home,” Mainer said.
Some homes with those same protections still burned.
“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,” Mainer said.
Those fires were not the only ones to ravage the county that week. Firefighters also had to contend with the Ammo Fire on Camp Pendleton, the Rice Fire near Escondido, the Poomacha Fire near Palomar Mountain and the Coronado Hills Fire near San Marcos.
Close to 1 million San Diego County residents were displaced, 10 people lost their lives and 140 firefighters were injured.
The 2007 firestorms were the last major conflagration to scorch San Diego County. Those firestorms have left lasting marks on the community.
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