'It was like a war zone. That was the first time I’d seen that kind of human suffering on a wildland fire.'
(TNS) - To grasp the power and terror of the 2007 firestorms — a 27-day ordeal that began 10 years ago this weekend— you had to be there.
You had to be in Michelle Grimaldo’s car, as flames swept across Honey Springs Road in Jamul, blocking her escape route.
“Everywhere you looked,” she said, “there was fire.”
You had to be with Tony Mecham, stunned by the number of severe burn victims — 22 — being airlifted from Cal Fire's Potrero station.
“It was like a war zone,” said Mecham, now head of the county's Fire Authority. “That was the first time I’d seen that kind of human suffering on a wildland fire.”
You had to be with Nelly Bulkin, awakened from a fitful sleep by her husband and told to grab their four children and race from their Rancho Bernardo home.
“Embers were flying everywhere,” she said. “I thought for sure our home was going to burn down."
A natural disaster of staggering scope, San Diego County’s 2007 firestorms killed 10 people and destroyed 1,738 homes. Flames consumed 368,316 acres, an area larger than the city of Los Angeles.
More than 500,000 people were evacuated, exceeding the number of Hurricane Katrina evacuees. Motels across the county overflowed with people who were dislocated; others bunked down at the Del Mar Fairgrounds and what was then Qualcomm Stadium.
This was not a fire — it was a chain of wildfires, erupting in virtually every corner of the county. While the 2003 wildfires were more costly in terms of lives lost (17), acres burned (372,000) and homes destroyed (2,454), the 2007 disaster proved that wildfires were no longer a rare tragedy limited to remote patches of the county.
“This is the new normal we live with," Mecham said. “Fires are something that no longer stay in the backcountry.”
In response, Mecham and other authorities say that the county's firefighting capabilities have been strengthened with new equipment and tactics.
“We are better prepared than ever," said county Supervisor Dianne Jacob.
Yet even as wildfires seem to be more common — witness the recent blazes in Sonoma, Napa and Orange counties — some worry that San Diegans are becoming complacent.
A recent county survey showed that only 50 percent of residents evacuate their homes within 15 minutes. In 2007, 74 percent were prepared.
“It's eerie when I talk to neighbors now," said Jack Beren, a Rancho Bernardo resident who lost two homes in the 2007 fires. “It's yesterday's news. But this is not like lightning. It does strike twice in the same place.”
This disaster was sparked around 9:30 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 21. What was believed to be an unauthorized campfire ignited brush near Potrero, a dusty town north of the U.S.-Mexico border. The Harris fire began in conditions that could not have been worse: high heat, low humidity and sustained Santa Ana winds blowing in excess of 50 mph with gusts of up to 100 mph.
“The first afternoon into the second day was surreal,” said Mecham, who heads both the San Diego County Fire Authority and Cal Fire’s San Diego unit.
“I had come from Riverside and I was pulling in. When I got out of my truck, the wind was blowing so hard it bent my car door.”
The last hot spot wouldn't be extinguished until Nov. 16. The Harris fire would burn just over 90,000 acres, destroy 253 homes and two commercial buildings, kill eight people and injure dozens.
Harris was the beginning, but far from the end. A Cal Fire tanker pilot returning from dumping retardant on the Harris fire witnessed an electrical transmission line arcing, igniting brush in the mountains near Santa Ysabel.
These arcing lines ignited the Witch Creek fire. About 12 hours later another fire, Guejito, began in the San Pasqual Valley. Backed by strong winds, the two fires united and swept into Rancho Bernardo, taking out hundreds of homes.
Firefighters were stretched so thin across the county, many of the homes burned without a fire truck in sight.
Two people would die in those twin blazes, which consumed 1,141 homes and 509 outbuildings in Ramona, Poway, Rancho Bernardo, Escondido, Del Dios and Rancho Santa Fe. It was the second most destructive fire in county history, surpassed only by the Cedar fire of 2003.
Ramona was ordered evacuated that first night, causing gridlock on State Routes 67 and 78. Power lines that connected water pumps to the town burned. Residents weren’t officially allowed back to their homes for a week, and even then told not to drink the water.
On Oct. 22, with the winds still howling, the Rice Canyon fire began in Fallbrook north of State Route 76 when more power lines sparked. The fire leapt across Interstate 15 and flying embers sparked fires that consumed about 120 mobile homes. In all 206 homes, two commercial buildings and 40 outbuildings were lost.
Early on Oct. 23, a house fire lit brush on the La Jolla Indian Reservation. This blaze, the Poomacha fire, raced into an area that hadn’t seen fire in recorded history. It would burn the south side of the Palomar Mountain range, eventually consuming about 50,000 acres, 138 homes and 19 outbuildings.
Later that morning a fifth major fire began on Camp Pendleton. The Horno/Ammo fire caused part of the base to be evacuated but the fire burned only brush – roughly 21,000 acres.
Several other smaller fires also erupted, but were quickly controlled.
The cost of fighting the fires, estimated at $41 million, was dwarfed by the property damage: about $1.6 billion.
Authorities say they were determined to absorb the lessons from this costly experience.
“It really got everybody to the table,” said Doug Perry, fire marshal for the city of San Diego and deputy chief of the San Diego Fire Department. “Something needs to be done — San Diego County and the whole region is very susceptible to those wildfires.”
Like the 2003 wildfires, the 2007 firestorms exposed weaknesses in how local agencies attacked the blazes.
The backcountry had a patchwork of fire departments, many staffed with volunteers. Communications between departments was spotty. Moreover, Jacob said, the county board of supervisors had only provided grudging support to fire prevention efforts in the forests and mountains of East County.
“The Cedar Fire (of 2003) was the defining moment," said Jacob, who represents East County. “That was the first time a fire that started in the backcountry went into the cities.
"For the first time, there was unanimous support on the board."
If 2003 supplied inspiration, the events of 2007 added a sense of urgency. In 2008, the county formed a Fire Authority to oversee 16 stations covering more than 1.5 million acres. The loose network of backcountry fire departments are now under this single command.
Fire dispatchers across the county adopted a uniform communication system. "Each dispatch center knows what the other dispatch center is doing,” and Perry, the fire official. “It's really state of the art, 10 times better than what we had in ’03 and ’07.”
A fortune was spent on new equipment — the city’s inventory of “brush rigs," fire engines adapted to fight wildfires, has been expanded from two to 13. At least three helicopters have been added to the squadron of aerial firefighters — two purchased by the San Diego Fire Department, one by the county.
Some fixes were relatively inexpensive, although they could prove essential.
“The most common question I get is, ‘Where's the fire?’” said San Diego Fire Chief Brian Fennessy.
That’s not a joke. Firestorms can move with alarming speed and move in unpredictable directions. Phoned-in reports of the flames’ location, while welcome, can be rendered irrelevant in a matter of minutes.
That’s why Fennessy and other firefighters were happy to see more than 100 new weather stations installed in the backcountry. Using these tools, firefighters can track the speed, direction and intensity of fires in real time.
Other solutions required changes in approach. While the county has dozens of fire departments, Perry said, everyone now works on the same team. Every spring, county fire agencies come together for a joint training exercise. This unity carries over to actual fires in the field.
“Throughout this whole entire county, the way that we respond now is truly with all boundaries, all city limits dropped,” Perry said. “All agencies participate.”
There are several reasons for this, including enlightened self-interest. Most fires start in the east and then spread to the west.
"It's really smart for the cities to the west to send units to the east,” Perry said, “and try to stop the fire there.”
The idea is to act with speed and overwhelming force, deploying a wide range of weapons. Recently approved contracts make as many as 30 Navy and Marine Corps aerial units available to combat local fires, eliminating a barrier that existed in ’07. And a policy that prevented San Diego Fire helicopters from flying after sundown has been reversed.
Now, the birds can take to the air at the pilot's discretion.
“If a fire starts in the city of San Diego,” Perry said, "I can say with absolute certainty they will get a helicopter up 24 hours a day.”
Perry also praised an entity that is often slammed in discussions about the ’07 fires: San Diego Gas & Electric.
In the last decade, SDG&E has made available during fire season a Skycrane “Sun Bird" helitanker, an aircraft that can douse a target with up to 2,650 gallons of water.
"That's the equivalent of five engines," Perry said, noting that the average fire engine carries 500 gallons of water. “You have to give them credit."
The utility's role in the ’07 fires, though, remains controversial. While acknowledging their equipment started some of the fires, SDG&E has never admitted liability. Instead, it maintains that ultimate responsibility lies with an act of God, the fierce Santa Ana winds.
More than $2 billion was paid in settlements, of which $1.1 billion was covered by SDG&E's insurance. The utility also accepted a $444 million settlement from Cox Communications after it was determined that a Cox wire came into contact with power lines, igniting the Guejito fire.
SDG&E also received some payments from the Davey tree-trimming company and an electrical contractor.
After insurance and settlements, SDG&E faced outstanding costs of $379 million. As early as next week, the state's Public Utilities Commission could rule on SDG&E's request to bill consumers for this expense.
At the same time, the utility has taken steps to prevent future incidents.
“SDG&E has made significant investments in fire preparedness and to modernize our infrastructure to keep San Diego County safe,” said spokeswoman Colleen Windsor.
More than 2,100 wood poles throughout the backcountry have been replaced with fire hardened steel poles. A four-year, $450 million project to replace or underground 100 miles of poles in the Cleveland National Forest began in 2016.
During dry, windy weather, the utility disables automatic switching devices in fire sensitive areas. The transmission line that arced and started the Witch Creek fire had been automatically restarted after a problem was indicated earlier that day. Now, before power is restored during fire season, a manual inspection of the line is required.
The utility also automatically cuts power to backcountry areas in high winds during critical fire weather.
When seeking the state’s permission to take these steps, SDG&E documented 167 fires that had been started by its equipment in the preceding five and a half years. Of those fires, 13 occurred during strong winds, including Witch Creek/Guejito and Rice Canyon.
SDG&E also employs 40 arborists to inspect trees, subcontracts with 80 tree trimming crews to keep lines away from branches, has four mobile command centers available in case of fire, uses an Emergency Operations Center for large-scale crises and issues a daily fire index.
The latter comes from data collected by 170 small weather stations atop power poles. Wind speed, humidity and temperature are all recorded.
“Many of the firefighting agencies get that data on their smartphones on a daily basis,” Windsor said.
Surviving the Woo-ee
Fire is older than civilization, and humanity has long tried to control this elemental force.
"The science of firefighting hasn't changed in 50 years,” said Mecham, the head of the county Fire Authority. “I don't know that it ever will."
What needs to change, many insist, is our focus.
“There's still an over-emphasis on the actual fire fight,” said Christopher Dicus, a former firefighter who is a professor of wildlands fire and fuels management at California Polytechnic University San Luis Obispo. "I would contend if we actually had prepared the battlefield, the firefighters would have a much better chance to win."
After the ’07 wildfires, new building standards mandated fire-resistant exteriors and roofs — farewell, shake shingle! — a 100-foot “defensible space" outside the house and ceiling sprinklers inside.
While these new requirements added to the cost of construction, some survivors of ’07 fires benefited from the timing of that disaster.
That same year, the great recession was dragging down the economy. Especially hard hit: the construction industry.
"People were sitting on their hands, they had nothing do,” said Jack Beren, who rebuilt one of the two Rancho Bernardo homes he lost in the Guejito fire. “People were beating on fire victims’ houses, begging them to let them rebuild their homes.”
His new place has a tile roof, no exposed wood, dual pane windows, mesh screens over vents (to keep embers from flying inside), defensible space in front and a fire break in back. Those are sensible precautions in San Diego, where a Headwaters Institute 2016 study identified more than 42,000 properties in high risk locations.
They exist on the Wildlands Urban Interface, WUI, pronounced Woo-ee. The Institute, an Oregon-based nonprofit dedicated to watershed management and education, defines the WUI as the region where homes meet “dense stands of native or naturalized vegetation in canyons and other open space areas.”
Across the western U.S., some rural residents have pioneered a way of surviving in the Woo-ee. Their goal is to create “fire adapted communities."
“This is a recognition that we have to rely on residents as much as other people, that fire departments aren't going to solve the problem alone," said Molly Mowery, who leads the National Fire Protection Association’s Fire Adapted Community program. “We need the engagement of the residents, too. It's everyone’s responsibility.”
That means lobbying developers and planners to include more than one route in and out of every neighborhood, and ensuring that streets are wide enough for emergency vehicles to quickly turn around.
But it also means that all residents need to keep flammable materials and plants away from their homes' exteriors; develop an emergency plan; and get to know their neighbors.
“Do children live next door? Does Grandma? These days, how many of us know that?” asked Fennessy. “But that's important information when there's a fire.”
Although she had been surrounded by fire 10 years ago on Jamul's Honey Springs Road, Michelle Grimaldo survived the Harris fire. Despite that terrifying experience, she and husband Gregg Grimaldo rebuilt their home in rural, fire-prone Deerhorn Valley.
“I love it there,” she said. "I can't move.”
On Sunday, the Grimaldos are hosting a 10th anniversary gathering for Deerhorn Valley residents. The party is scheduled for 2 to 7 p.m. at McKinley Field, 19545 Elena Lane.
Should be a good time -- and a hot one. The forecast for the day: high temperatures and Santa Ana winds.
Last week, 100 to 150 San Diego-based Cal Fire units were battling blazes in Northern California and Orange County. By last Wednesday, though, San Diego's impending Santa Ana was changing their plans.
“We're already starting to move resources south,” said Cal Fire Capt. Kendal Bortisser.
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