1985 Normal Heights Fire Prompted San Diego Education, Prevention Programs
IT WAS AT THE TIME SAN DIEGO'S WORST GRASS AND STRUCTURE FIRE IN HISTORY. LITTLE BEFORE NOON ON JUNE 30 LITTLE BEFORE NOON ON JUNE 30, 1985 THE CANYONS BENEATH THE NEIGHBORHOOD OF NORMAL HEIGHTS STARTED TO BURN. WHAT DEVELOPED THROUGH THE DAY AS DESCRIBED AS A GOOD FIRESTORM DEVELOPING WHOLE BLOCKS OF ONE OF SAN DIEGO'S OLDEST NEIGHBORHOODS. IN THE END OF THE NORMAL HEIGHTS FIRE THAT DESTROYED 76 HOMES, DAMAGED 57 OTHERS AND LEFT 24 PEOPLE WITH MINOR INJURIES. JIM BURROWS, A LONGTIME RESIDENTS OF NORTHBOUND YOU DRIVE IN NORMAL HEIGHTS RECENTLY SHARED A MEMORY OF RETURNING HOME THAT DAY TO FIND HIS NEIGHBORHOOD ON FIRE. THIS SECTION RIGHT HERE AT THE END UP 33rd ST. IS A FINGER CANYON OFF OF MISSION VALLEY. THE FIRES WHIPPED RIGHT UP HERE VERY QUICKLY AND MOVE THEIR WAY EAST BURNING HOUSES AS THEY WENT. I COULD LOOK ACROSS THE STREET AND AS YOU LOOK ACROSS NOW THE TWO GRAY HOUSES WERE FLAT. WASN'T ANYTHING THERE EXCEPT A CHIMNEY, TWO CHIMNEYS AND I COULD STILL SEE FLAMES AND SMOLDERING STUFF. THE FIRE FOLKS WERE HOSING THINGS DOWN. AS WE MARK THE ANNIVERSARY OF THAT DEVASTATING BLAZE SAN DIEGO FIRE OFFICIALS TRACE SOME OF THE FIREFIGHTING ADVANCES WE HAVE TODAY BACK TO THAT TERRIFYING AFTERNOON 30 YEARS AGO. JOINING ME IN STUDIO ART ASSISTANT CHIEF BRIAN FENNESSY WITH THE SAND DIEGO FIRE-RESCUE DEPARTMENT AND BRIAN, WELCOME. THANK YOU. AND GARY WEBER IS HERE. HIS LONGTIME RESIDENT OF NORMAL HEIGHTS WHO WAS EVACUATED DURING THE FIRE 30 YEARS AGO TODAY. WELCOME. THANK YOU. BRIAN FENNESSY, READING ABOUT THE NORMAL HEIGHTS FIRE TODAY WAS DESCRIBED AS UNUSUALLY HOT AND WINDY. I KNOW THAT YOU'RE NOT THERE AT THE TIME THAT YOU HAVE STUDIED THIS FIRE. WHAT WOULD YOU SAY -- WOULD YOU SAY THE CONDITIONS WERE RIPE FOR A FIRE LIKE THIS? THEY WERE. COINCIDENTALLY MUCH LIKE THEY ARE TODAY. AFTER DROUGHT THE GRASS CROP AND VERY MUCH LIKE TODAY ONLY KOCHER A SCARY WOULD ATTEST TO. AND SANTA ANA WINDS? NO. THEY WEREN'T. IN FACT, THE WIND WAS QUITE NORMAL OUT OF THE SOUTHWEST. HOWEVER, IN THESE URBAN WILDLAND URBAN CANYON AREAS TYPICALLY THE WIND WILL PICK UP AND BLOW UP CANYON COME UPSLOPE DURING THE AFTERNOON HOURS. AND QUITE BRISKLY. WHAT STARTED THE FIRE? IN TALKING WITH SOME OF THE FIREFIGHTERS THAT WERE INVOLVED IN THE FIRE THAT ARE NOW RETIRED, MY UNDERSTANDING IS THAT IT REALLY WENT UNDETERMINED. SOMEBODY ALLUDED TO THE FACT THAT IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN SOME GLASS THAT HAD BEEN REFLECTED AND STARTED THE FIRE BUT TO OUR KNOWLEDGE NO ONE WAS EVER DETAINED WERE IDENTIFIED AS HAVING STARTED IT. AND THE FIRE STARTS TO IN THE CANYONS ABOVE INTERSTATE 8. HOW WELL PREPARED FOR SAN DIEGO FIRE DEPARTMENTS TO BATTLE A CANYON FIRE LIKE THAT BACK IN 1985? I'M GUESSING IF YOU ASK FIREFIGHTERS BACK IN IT WOULD HAVE TOLD YOU THEY WERE VERY WELL PREPARED. HOWEVER, CERTAINLY THEY WERE NOT. AND EVEN FAST-FORWARD TO 2003 IN 2007 WE BECAME THAT ARE PREPARED AFTER ALL OF THOSE LARGE FIRES. CERTAINLY WE ARE FAR BETTER PREPARED TODAY AND WE WERE IN THOSE DAYS. GARY, WHERE WERE YOU LIVING IN NORMAL HEIGHTS OF TIME OF THE FIRE? WE WERE LIVING ON WILSHIRE DRIVE WITCHES THE MOST EASTERN FINGER CANYON. WHICH IS THE MOST EASTERN FINGER CANYON. I WAS SETTING UP A SWIMMING POOL FOR THE KIDS. IT WAS A VERY HOT DAY. AND ALL OF A SUDDEN WE SMELLED SMOKE AND I WENT OUT BACK AND LOOKED DOWN TOWARDS THE WEST AND SAW A LOT OF SMOKE. PRETTY SOON WE HEARD HELICOPTERS AND WENT TO THE RADIO AND THEY SAID NORMAL HEIGHTS IS ON FIRE. DID THE FIRE SPREAD FAST? IT DID. IT WENT UP THE CANYONS AND WAS STARTING TO WORK IT'S WAY EAST. WE DIDN'T KNOW EXACTLY WHERE IT WAS BUT WE COULD FEEL IT COMING. WHAT DID YOUR FAMILY DO? WELL, WE, MY WIFE GRABBED A BUNCH OF TRASH BAGS AND STARTED THROWING CHANGES OF CLOTHES AND WE GATHERED UP THE KIDS AND SAID NO SWIMMING TODAY AND WE LOADED UP ALL OF THE PHOTOGRAPHS AND I FOUND AS MANY PAPERS AS I COULD FIND WITH 10 MINUTES NOTICE. WE THREW EVERYTHING INTO TWO CARS AND DROVE THEM OUT ALONG WITH THE KIDS. MY WIFE AND THE KIDS WENT OVER TO HER PARENTS HOUSE IN HILLCREST. WE SPENT THE AFTERNOON THERE WATCHING IT ON TELEVISION AND HERE IN CONFLICTING REPORTS, OUR HOUSE IS GONE, IT ISN'T GONE. THAT IS TERRIFYING. THE ACCOUNTS I HAVE HEARD OF THE TIME LEE DESCRIBED A CHAOTIC SCENE. PEOPLE HURRIEDLY LOADING UP CARS LIKE YOU WERE TALKING ABOUT. SOME JUST PUTTING THEIR FURNITURE IN THE STREET TO TRY TO SAVE IT IN CASE THEIR HOUSE CAUGHT FIRE. THE FIRE JUMPING FROM CANYON TO CANYON. BLINDING SMOKE. WHAT YOU REMEMBER ABOUT THAT SEEING? IT WAS A FIRESTORM. I WALKED BACK AND GOT AS CLOSE AS I COULD AND COMMANDEERED A BICYCLE SOMEWHERE AND JUST STARTED RUNNING AROUND USING OF NERVOUS ENERGY BECAUSE I HAD NO PLACE TO GO AND NOTHING ELSE TO DO AND COULDN'T FIT IT -- COULDN'T GET BACK TO THE HOUSE. I JUST WATCHED IT PROGRESSING. IT WENT FAST FROM THE WEST TO THE EAST. BRIAN, THERE WERE NO REVERSE 911 CALLS 30 YEARS AGO. HOW DID FIRE AND SHERIFFS COORDINATE TO HANDLE A SCENE LIKE THAT BEFORE WE HAD THE ADVANCES THAT WE HAVE TODAY WHERE PEOPLE ARE NOTIFIED AS EARLY AS POSSIBLE TO EVACUATE BEFORE AN UNCLE AND -- ONCOMING FIRE? I WOULD ONLY BE SPECULATING BUT IT WOULD LIKELY BE SIRENS IN THE STREETS, KNOCKING ON THE DOORS AND THOSE SORTS OF THINGS THAT EVEN THOUGH WE DO HAVE REVERSE 911 OR WHAT WE CALL ALERT SAN DIEGO NOW THAT STILL TAKES PLACE. WE STILL NOTIFY PEOPLE THAT WAY. UNFORTUNATELY BACK IN THOSE DAYS THERE WAS NOT NEARLY THE COMMUNICATION THAT THERE IS TODAY. LOTS OF PEOPLE DESCRIBE THIS PLAYS AS GARY JUST DID AS A FIRESTORM. SOME CALL IT A HOLOCAUST. IS THAT BECAUSE THE INTENSITY OF THIS KIND OF A BLAZE CREATES ITS OWN WEATHER CONDITIONS? I BELIEVE THAT IS PART OF IT. WHEN A FIRE, AS GARY DESCRIBED IT, THE FIRE WAS MOVING EAST ACROSS THE SLOPES AND EVERY TIME IT HIT A FINGER CANYON IT WOULD RUN OUT. EVEN IF YOU DRIVE ACROSS I ATE THEY AND LOOK ON TOP THERE IS SOME LARGE BRUSH AND LARGE TREES. REMEMBER, THE CLEARANCES BACK THEN, THEY DIDN'T EVEN HAVE DEFENSIBLE SPACE, IT WAS 33. WE REQUIRE HEADER. NOW. IT WAS LARGELY OVERGROWN AND FIRES WILL LITERALLY BURN FROM HOME TO HOME IN THOSE CONDITIONS. AND FROM WHAT I UNDERSTAND ENTIRE BLOCKS WERE LOST IN THIS FIRE. IS THAT RIGHT? THAT IS CORRECT. EVERYONE OF THOSE STREETS ON THOSE FINGER CANYON'S WAS BURNT TO SOME DEGREE OR ANOTHER. EXCEPT HOURS. THEY GOT IT KNOCKED DOWN BEFORE IT HITS OUR STREET. IT WAS CLOSE BUT WASN'T THERE. MANY PEOPLE REMEMBER THE FIRE BECAUSE IT WAS SO VISIBLE FROM MISSION VALLEY. AGAIN, RESIDENT JIM AROSE TOLD US ABOUT WHAT HE SAW DRIVING HOME FROM THE DOWN MARKET. I COULD SEE OVER MISSION VALLEY BLACK SMOKE. IT LOOKS LIKE AT LEAST A QUARTER-MILE SPREAD OF BIG BLACK SMOKE COMING UP. I THOUGHT HERE GOES THE WHOLE NEIGHBORHOOD. GARY, YOU HAD RELATIVES I'M A CROSSED THE COUNTRY THAT WERE ACTUALLY TRYING TO REACH YOU BECAUSE THEY SAW THE FIRE WILL WATCHING THE PADRES GAME. IS THAT RIGHT? THAT IS RIGHT. I AM FROM CINCINNATI AND THE PADRES WERE PLAYING THE REDS THAT AFTERNOON. MY PARENTS WERE WATCHING IT ON TV AND A NEW WHERE I LIVE. THEY HAD BEEN THERE. THEY STARTED WATCHING THIS COVERAGE OF THE WHOLE CANYON SYSTEM BEING ON FIRE. I HAD JUST GOT AN ANSWERING MACHINE AND THEY WERE CALLING THE HOUSE AND LEAVING MESSAGES ON THE ANSWERING MACHINE. BY THE END OF THE DAY I HAD 60 OR 70 CALLS ON THAT ANSWERING MACHINE OF PEOPLE SAYING ARE YOU OKAY? THE ANSWERING MACHINE HAS A MELTED SO MAYBE WE ARE. WHAT WAS IT LIKE GOING BACK? AFTER YOU WERE ALLOWED BACK INTO YOUR HOUSE? IT WAS LATE EVENING. WE DIDN'T KNOW WHAT WE WERE GOING TO FIND. WHEN WE COME BACK THE PLACE WAS JUST COVERED WITH ASHES AND SO. IT WAS HARD TO WALK WITHOUT STIRRING IT UP. WE JUST BASICALLY WENT HOME AND WENT TO BED. A HECK OF A DAY. IS IT WAS. I AM SPEAKING WITH GARY WEBER. HE HAS LIVED IN NORMAL HEIGHTS SINCE AT LEAST 1985. AND FC INSTANT CHEAP BRIAN FENNESSY WITH THE SAND DIEGO FIRE-RESCUE DEPARTMENT. WE ARE TALK ABOUT THE 30th ANNIVERSARY OF THE DEVASTATING NORMAL HEIGHTS FIRE BACK IN 1985. WHEN WAS THE FIRE FINALLY BROUGHT UNDER CONTROL ECO-HOW WAS IT FINALLY BROUGHT -- UNDER CONTROL? HOW WAS IT FINALLY BROUGHT UNDER CONTROL? MY UNDERSTANDING IT WAS BROUGHT UNDER CONTROL THAT EVENING. THE FIRE DEPARTMENT HAD TO RESPOND TO ALL OF THE STRUCTURES BURNING ON THE RIDGELINE. THEY DIDN'T HAVE TIME TO STOP THE LATERAL SPREAD. IT WASN'T UNTIL THE GOT RESOURCES IN FROM THROUGHOUT THE COUNTY AND ORANGE COUNTY AND LA COUNTY WHERE THEY WERE ABLE TO START FROM THE BOTTOM AND STOP THE EAST SPREAD OF THE FIRE AND STOP THE FIRE. SO THAT IS WAY IT WAS SPREADING, TOWARDS I-15? IT WAS. IT WAS FROM 805 ACROSS THE HILLSIDE. IF YOU CAN IMAGINE IT MOVING EASTBOUND AND RUNNING OF EACH CANYON. WE HAVE SEEN THAT MULTIPLE TIMES WHEN WE ARE HAVING THAT TYPE OF CONFLAGRATION WE WILL INVEST RESOURCES IN STRUCTURE PROTECTION. AND IT BURNED 300 ACRES FINALLY OF THAT AREA. MOSTLY UPHILL APPARENTLY. I WANT TO TALK ABOUT SOME OF THE LESSONS THAT WE HAVE LEARNED FROM THE NORMAL HEIGHTS FIRE 30 YEARS AGO. ONE HAD TO DO WITH HOMEOWNERS, THEIR GARDEN HOSES AND WATER PRESSURE. TELL US ABOUT THAT. IN TALKING WITH, AGAIN, SOME OF THE NOW RETIRED FIREFIGHTERS, WATER SUPPLY WAS A BIG ISSUE. AS I UNDERSTAND IT MEANS IN THAT AREA WERE SIX-INCH MAINS WHICH ARE NOT VERY LARGE. WHEN YOU HAVE GOT ALTERABLE FIRE ENGINES ON THOSE HYDRANTS TRYING TO SUPPLY THEIR ENGINES WATER BECAME A BIG ISSUE. COMPOUND THAT WITH PEOPLE USING HOSES AND TRYING TO PUT OUT THEIR OWN FIRES AND IT MADE THINGS WORSE. QUITE FRANKLY, AS I'M SURE MR. WEBER WOULD AGREE, WHEN YOU HAVE THAT TYPE OF CONSULTATION THE WATER HOSE ISN'T GOING TO BUY A VERY MUCH. DID YOU SEE PEOPLE TRYING TO USE THE HOSES ON THE FIRE? YES. THE FIRST THING WE DID WAS TURN ON THIS BURGLAR SYSTEM AND LET IT RUN. THERE WERE REALLY -- THERE WERE FIRE TRUCKS FROM PLACES I HAD NEVER HEARD OF BEFORE. NOT A LOT OF PLACES TO HOOK UP TO GET TO THE WATER SUPPLIES AND THE WATER SUPPLY WAS NOT ALL THAT DRAMATIC. ALTHOUGH, IT WAS SUCH A FIRESTORM THAT I DON'T THINK IT WOULD HAVE MATTERED IF ALL OF THOSE HOSES HAD HIGH PRESSURE. NOTHING WAS GOING TO STOP THAT THING THE WAY IT WAS GOING THROUGH THE CANYONS. HAVE THERE BEEN IMPROVEMENTS, BRIAN, AND THE WHITE OPPRESSION -- WATER PRESSION AND THE WATER SUPPLY IN THE CITY OF SAN DIEGO? MY UNDERSTANDING IS THERE HAVE. IF YOU LOOK AT TODAY VERSUS BACK THEN WE NOW HAVE WATER DROPPING HELICOPTER -- THAT ARE 5 TO 7 MINUTES AWAY FROM THOSE HOMES. YOU HAVE THE ABILITY TO REFILL TANKS IN THE RIVER RIVAL THOSE HOMES ARE? ARE FAR BETTER PREPARED. WHEN YOU COUPLE THAT WITH THE RESOURCES THAT WE HAVE ACCESS TO THROUGHOUT THE COUNTY ALL OF OUR DISPATCH CENTERS THROUGHOUT THE COUNTY ARE CONNECTED. WE CAN PUT TOGETHER A VERY ROBUST RESPONSE VERY QUICKLY COMPARED TO 30 YEARS AGO. RIGHT. THAT IS THE PHILOSOPHY NOW OF THE WAY TO FIGHT THESE FIRES, TO HIT THEM WITH EVERYTHING AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE SO THAT THEY DON'T SPREAD. ISN'T THAT RIGHT? YOU ARE RIGHT. ANY 911 CALL THAT REPORTS OF FIRE WE LAUNCH A VERY ROBUST RESPONSE. IF WE GET UP -- IF WE END UP GETTING CANCELED THAT IS FIVE. WE HAVE LEARNED OVERTIME WE MUST THROW A LOT OF RESOURCES AT THESE FIRES TO KEEP THEM MANAGEABLE AND SMALL. YOU ALSO MENTIONED THE WEED ABATEMENT POLICIES, THE BRUSH AND WEED ABATEMENT. AS A DIRECT RESULT I BELIEVE OF THIS FIRE THEY CHANGED IN THE CITY OF SAN DIEGO. TELL US MORE ABOUT THAT. I DON'T HAVE, I WOULD BE SPECULATING IN TERMS OF THE TIMING OF IT BUT BACK THEM -- BACK THEN WHAT I AM TURN -- WHAT I AM TOLD IS THAT THE CLEARANCE WAS 30 FEEDBACK THAN. NOW IT IS 100 FEET. WE DO INSPECTIONS NOW. WE HAVE A MUCH MORE ROBUST BRUSH INSPECTION PROGRAM. BACK THEM IT WAS REALLY KIND OF HIT AND MISS. SOME OF THE OUTCOMES ARE NOT ONLY FROM THE NORMAL HEIGHTS FIRE BUT ALSO OF THE CEDAR FIRE AND OF COURSE THE 2007 FIRE. WE ARE FAR BETTER PREPARED BUT WE ARE NEVER QUITE OUT OF IT. LOOK AT THE DROUGHT WE ARE EXPERIENCING NOW AND THE GRASSES AND THE VEGETATION IN OUR CANYONS NOW AND WE COULD VERY WELL HAVE ANOTHER CATASTROPHIC FIRE THIS YEAR. WHAT YOU THINK PEOPLE SHOULD TAKE AWAY THIS 30th ANNIVERSARY OF THE NORMAL HEIGHTS FIRE? I THINK IF YOU ARE A CITIZEN OF THE CITY OF SAN DIEGO YOU NEED TO REST ASSURED THAT WE ARE FAR BETTER PREPARED THAN WE WERE IN DAYS PAST. WE HAVE THE CAPACITY NOW TO SEARCH. WE HAVE AT ANY ONE TIME TWO THIRDS OF THE FIRE DEPARTMENT IS OFF-DUTY. WE KNOW HOW THE APPARATUS WHERE A LOT OF RESERVE APPARATUS TO RESPOND BACK TO AND WE CAN MANAGE NOT ONLY ONE FOR MULTIPLE FIRES. THE READY SET GO PROGRAM IS AN EXCELLENT PROGRAM. IF YOU GO TO THE FIRE DEPARTMENTS OR THE CITY WEBSITE AND CLICK ON THE READY SET GO ALL OF THE TOOLS TO PREPARE YOURSELF AS A HOMEOWNER AND RESIDENT TO SURVIVE A LARGER CATASTROPHIC FIRE IS THEREFORE YOU. GARY, WHEN YOU DID COME BACK AND YOU HAD THAT NIGHT AND WENT TO SLEEP YOU SAW THE NEXT MORNING WHAT HAD HAPPENED TO YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD AND THEN THE WHOLE PROCESS OF REBUILDING STARTS. DID YOU EVER CONSIDER AFTER THAT TERRIFYING DAY NOT STAYING IN NORMAL HEIGHTS? WE WERE ACTUALLY AT THE POINT WHERE WE NEEDED TO REMODEL OUR HOUSE BECAUSE OF THE KIDS GROWING UP AND NEEDING BEDROOMS. WE CONTEMPLATED DO WE WANT TO STAY HERE AND GO THROUGH THIS OR NOT? AND I LOVE THE PLACE. I HAD NO INTEREST IN LEAVING. AND SO WE WERE IN FOR THE LONG HAUL. WE DID REMODEL AND I HAVE TO TELL YOU HAVE -- I FEEL A LOT MORE COMFORTABLE IN THIS DAY AND AGE THAN I DID BACK THEN WITH THE RESPONSES THAT WE ARE SEEING FROM THE FIRE DEPARTMENT WHEN THINGS LIKE THIS HAPPEN. I WANT TO THANK YOU BOTH FOR REMEMBERING THIS WITH US. I HAVE BEEN SPEAKING WITH SAN DIEGO FIRE AND RESCUE DEPARTMENT ASSISTANT CHIEF BRIAN FENNESSY AND GARY WEBER, LONG TIME RESIDENTS OF NORMAL HEIGHTS. THANK YOU BOTH VERY MUCH. THANK YOU.
Some San Diego education campaigns and fire prevention programs can trace their origins to a 1985 brush fire that devoured whole blocks of the Normal Heights neighborhood. Tuesday marks the Normal Heights fire's 30th anniversary.
At the time, it was the worst brush fire in San Diego history. Flames started burning in the canyon beneath the neighborhood just before noon on June 30, 1985, and in the end, the fire destroyed 76 homes, damaged 57 others and left 24 people with minor injuries.
Fire officials said the cause was never determined.
“I remember it was around 11:45 in the morning, a very hot day. I had put up the little swimming pool for our kids, and all of the sudden we smelled smoke,” said Gary Weber, who lived on a cul-de-sac on Wilshire Drive in Normal Heights in 1985.
Weber said he grabbed photos, papers, his wife and two kids, and then drove them to his family in Hillcrest.
“It was a firestorm,” he said. “It was intense and started leaping across North Mountain View Drive. No one knew where it was going to go. The nature of the canyons were such that it created a windstorm on top of it. It was a holocaust.”
Jim Baross, who has owned a home in Normal Heights since 1983, remembers coming home from the Del Mar Fair to find his neighborhood in flames.
“My hedge was burned down, and the front door was kicked in from when my renter was evacuated,” Baross said.
His home on North Mountain View Drive was not damaged, but many of his neighbors weren’t as lucky.
“You could look across the street and the two houses were flat,” Baross said. “There was nothing but two chimneys. I could still see flames and smoldering smoke. The fire folks were hosing things down."
Canyons and dry brush made it easy for flames to move quickly, he said.
“This section right at the end of 33rd Street is a finger-canyon off of Mission Valley, so the fires whipped right up here very quickly,” Baross said.
The brush fire prompted San Diego leaders to establish several initiatives, including a weed and brush abatement program and an educational campaign for residents who live along canyons.
“We learned over time that we must throw a lot of resources at these fires,” Brian Fennessy, assistant chief with the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, told KPBS Midday Edition on Tuesday. “We’re better prepared today.”