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10 Years Ago: Firestorms Ravaged San Diego County

Three firefighters brace themselves from explosive heat coming from a burning home in the Rancho Bernardo area of San Diego, set off by a wildfire seen here in a file photo taken Monday, Oct. 22, 2007.
Lenny Ignelzi / Associated Press
Three firefighters brace themselves from explosive heat coming from a burning home in the Rancho Bernardo area of San Diego, set off by a wildfire seen here in a file photo taken Monday, Oct. 22, 2007.
10 Years Ago: Firestorms Ravaged San Diego County
10 Years Ago: Firestorms Ravaged San Diego County GUEST: Steve Vandenberg, senior meteorologist, SDG&E Weather Network

This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. In Northern California firefighters are still battling deadly wildfires that have scorched thousands of acres burned thousands of buildings to the ground and left 40 people dead with hundreds more unaccounted for. Here in San Diego people are familiar with the dangers of fires. This week marks the 10th anniversary of the 2007 fires that ravaged San Diego county earning more acreage and buildings than any firestorm before them. As part of her special coverage living with wildfires. Erik Anderson looks back at two of the largest fires. Pete Scully new is down at the edge of the sweeping valley. This is all dead. This is very fine dead fuel. This is similar to what we read -- are seeing on the Harris fire. The region was being buffeted by hurricane winds. We did not even get out of our bugles because it is so windy. The blaze went through this valley consuming more than 250 homes and charring more than 90,000 acres. This fire was 100 foot of clearance. I watched houses literally explode. He recalls it was like a chimney laid on its side with flames and he been pushed to the valley by hot winds. Fire crew was over one by flames near Portero . Are responsible for that and it literally felt like somebody punch me in the stomach. All the firefighters and the civilian survived but a man died there. A people would lose their lives before the flames were finally put out or than a week later. If you hours after the Harris fire started burning, the winds sparked another fire. Randy scale says it would come to be known as the witch Creek fire. It started over that ridge. It was started from a power line. Once it was spotted, firefighters retreated to Ramona to save homes. This video shows the black smoke as the fire moved past the town. God only knows what conditions are at the moment. Season firefighters knew where the flames were heading. Typically the low-lying area pushed her right through that valley. That's where the police found the fire chief. His crew was protecting a home on the edge of a ridge overlooking the San Pasqual Valley. He saw the glow and watched as the blaze advance in the middle of the night. We had a faceless smoke so it was hard to see but the first thing we saw where embers going bias. That was all we saw. The fire had joined with the other fire by the time the flames found the crew. They were expecting the fire to hit around 4:00 a.m.. The wind were taking the embers and debris that was the size of a basketball and blowing it for miles. The flames made three runs up the hillside. The heat and thick smoke forced it to seek refuge for a time but they were back outside battling the flames a while later. The crew saved this house but the blaze poured into Rancho Bernardo destroying 365 homes. The huge factor is the wind. When the wind died down, we were able to get to work. Those are some conditions that we cannot control. We do our best to make sure the lives or say. More than 500,000 people were asked to leave their homes. It was the largest evacuation in history. More than 1100 families did not have homes to return to. Together the fire's chart close to 300,000 acres. 10 people died from the firestorms. They destroyed more than 3000 buildings and damaged hundreds more. As in so many California wildfires it was the winds that whipped the 2007 fires into the monsters that they became. Some residents reported wind gusts from one her miles an hour during the peak of the fire. After it became clear that San Diego need a more precise information about the weather conditions and the winds when dangerous fire conditions were forming. Joining me is Steve Vandenberg, senior meteorologist, SDG&E Weather Network . Welcome to the program. Thank you.

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.”

10 Years Ago: Firestorms Ravaged San Diego County

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.”

A San Diego Police officer uses a garden hose to try to save a home next to a burning one in the community of Rancho Bernardo, San Diego, Calif., Monday, Oct 22. 2007.
Denis Poroy / Associated Press
A San Diego Police officer uses a garden hose to try to save a home next to a burning one in the community of Rancho Bernardo, San Diego, Calif., Monday, Oct 22. 2007.

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.

10 Years Ago: Firestorms Ravaged San Diego County
The 2007 firestorms were the last major conflagration to scorch San Diego County. Those firestorms have left lasting marks on the community.