By Shannon Pieper
Published Tuesday, January 1, 2008
| From the January 2008 Issue of FireRescue
On Oct. 20, the Santa Ana event that Southern California had been dreading began. Within hours, fire managers, incident commanders, line firefighters and even community members could sense this was no ordinary Santa Ana. Within days, people around the country were closely following the fires as they burned seemingly out of control. In San Diego County alone, more than 350,00 acres burned and more than 1,700 structures were destroyednumbers rivaled only by the 2003 firestorm, which burned in many of the same areas.
From the start, fire managers feared the worst, expecting the fires to burn through outlying communities and enter the city limitsand they were right. As a result, the battle to gain control was a unified effort, relying on resources from the entire state of California and many other states as well. As firefighters in Southern California know full well, fire does not differentiate between structural and wildland firefighters.
Following is a closer look at the 2007 Firestorm.
San Diego Fires
- Location: Rice Canyon, Clearwater Rd., Fallbrook/San Diego County
- Acres Burned: 9,472
- Start Date: Oct. 22 Containment Date: Oct. 28
- Structures Destroyed:
- 206 residential structures, 2 commercial properties and 40 outbuildings
- Injuries: 5
- Cause: Human
- Cost to date: $6.5 million
- Location: Highway 76 in Pauma Valley/San Diego County
- Acres Burned: 49,410
- Start Date: Oct. 23 Containment Date: Nov. 10
- Structures Destroyed:
- 138 homes, 1 commercial property and 78 outbuildings
- Injuries: 15 firefighters
- Cause: Structure fire spreading into the vegetation.
- Costs to date: $20.6 million
- Location: Highway 94 and Harris Ranch Road near Portrero/San Diego County
- Acres Burned: 90,440
- Start Date: Oct. 21 Containment Date: Oct. 31
- Structures Destroyed: 253 residential structures, 2 commercial properties and 293 outbuildings
- Structures Damaged: 12 residential structures and 3 outbuildings
- Injuries: 40 firefighter and 21 civilian
- Fatalities: 5 civilians
- Cause: Under investigation?
- Costs to date: $21 million
- Location: Witch Creek area, east of Ramona/San Diego County
- Acres Burned: 197,990
- Start Date: Oct. 21 Containment Date: Oct. 31
- Structures Destroyed: 1,125 residential structures and 509 outbuildings
- Structures Damaged: 77 residential structures and 25 outbuildings
- Injuries: 40 firefighter
- Fatalities: 2 civilian
- Cause: Human
- Cost to date: $18 million
Other Major Southern California Fires
- Santiago Fire (Orange County): 28,400 acres burned, 15 residential structures and 9 outbuildings destroyed
- Slide Fire (San Bernardino County): 12,759 acres burned, 272 residential structures and 3 outbuildings destroyed
- Grass Valley Fire (San Bernardino County): 1,247 acres burned, 174 residential structures and 2 outbuildings destroyed
- Canyon Fire (Los Angeles County): 4,521 acres burned, 6 homes, 1 church, 1 commercial trailer destroyed
- Ranch Fire (Los Angeles County): 58,401 acres burned, 1 home and 9 outbuildings destroyed
A Citywide Effort
San Diego Fire-Rescue chief Tracy Jarman shares her perspective
By Shannon Pieper
During the Firestorm, San Diego Fire-Rescue (SDFR) officials knew it was simply a matter of time before the fire entered city limits. In the end, the fire burned 365 structures and 9,250 acres within the city. What follows is a conversation with SDFR Chief Tracy Jarman and Media Services Manager Maurice Luque.
FireRescue: How did this event differ from the 2003 Cedar Fire, which burned nearly 3,000 homes?
Chief Tracy Jarman: During the Cedar Fire, we were playing catch up. We didn't know it was going to hit the city, so we were constantly in a reactive position. This time, we knew the Santa Ana was going to blow all the way to the coast, whereas they usually go only as far westward as I-5. That was a red flag for us. There's a lot of debate about which fire was worse; all I can say is they're close.
FR: What steps did you take to preplan the event?
TJ: On Saturday, Oct. 20, we staffed up our brush rigs in anticipation of the fire. As we started to develop plans, the Harris Fire in Portrero was the first to take off. At that point we were pretty much aware we were in a unique set of circumstances. We prepositioned strike teams as the Witch Fire started. Sunday evening about 10 p.m., we started to notify the citizens that the fire was headed toward the city, through the San Pasqual area.
You have limited resources and you must decide where to deploy them. The Witch Fire was burning very fast at that time; it burned 200 acres in 2 minutes.
FR: How were communications between the various agencies?
TJ: I think we did a wonderful job of keeping it unified, watching out for each other's needs. For example, when I knew the Witch Fire was headed toward Escondido, I lent the Escondido chief resources, then he sent them back to me. At one point I called the Rancho Santa Fe chief, told him I couldn't hold the fire, that it was coming at him. Later he called back to say he couldn't hold it either, and it was headed back our way. So the coordination with the county chiefs was excellent. In addition, we were constantly on the phone with the area fire coordinator and with CAL FIRE, which was overseeing all the fires.
FR: Did you make any changes in the way media was briefed?
Maurice Luque: During the Cedar Fire, the county held its news conferences, and the city held its conferences. This time there was a unified effort. Two or three times a day, Chief Jarman, representatives from CAL FIRE and other emergency personnel would brief the media.
TJ: In 2003, our 911 center was overrun with media for the briefings. This time we coordinated it over at the County Emergency Operations center, not at the 911 center.
FR: Do you feel you had appropriate resources staged? How do you feel about the air response?
TJ: Our main challenge is that within the first 24 hours of a fire event like this one, wind conditions often don't allow for air support. So we need to get more resources on the ground.
ML: But Copter 1 was up and flying every day 810 hours, with three pilots alternating 34 hours at a time. The crew conducted a number of medevacs of injured to the burn center, and continued to do water drops. They also did some night reconnaissance early Monday morning, flying at 8,000 feet in 60-mph winds, using the infrared camera to see how the fire was approaching.
TJ: In addition, we had mobile data computers, so captains on the engines could see where resources were deployed and where they might be needed next. This year we also used forward-looking teams of observers working 12-hour shifts. These firefighters have special training in determining the direction of spread of the fire and anticipating where it might go next.
ML: Just before the fires, we had someone from L.A. County train our officers on structure triage. Since the fires, many officers have stated that it made a big difference in the decisions they made to save homes.
FR: As San Diego--and Southern California--grows outward, homes will plunge further into what was previously wilderness. How will you prepare to protect these homes?
TJ: During the firestorm, our firefighters were chasing the perimeter of the fire because it was so hard to contain. They would pass a house and think it was OK and then come back later and see it was on fire. The fires were starting in the attics and eaves. So one thing is looking at building design.
Also, we do "bump and run"--hit a house and then chase the perimeter. We need to look at bump, run and return. In that scenario, you have front-line engines and brush trucks going after the perimeter, and some kind of resources coming in from behind to do the return. We have plenty of personnel, just not additional apparatus. So we're considering Type 6 engines for that--basically pickup trucks with a pump on the back. These are preliminary things, not flushed out. But it seems like we could have saved more houses if we'd had that capability.
FR: As a fire chief, what advice would you like to share with other chiefs concerning this incident?
TJ: You really need to find your core staff and get them the training they need. I am fortunate to have a number of officers on IMTs who have responded to the World Trade Center, the Oklahoma City bombing, Hurricane Katrina, etc. They understand the need to have the incident action plan, have the briefings, implement the incident command system--and they were fantastic in this incident. In addition, you need to educate the public. We started in April, saying it's the driest it's been in 90 years.
FR: Is there anything else you want to add?
TJ: I am just so proud of my firefighters. I know I put them in harm's way, and I know they made incredible rescues. About 36 hours into the incident, I thought I'd lost citizens, and it's the direct result of my firefighters' efforts that we didn't.
Holding the Line
Experiences from the frontlines of the storm
Battalion Chief Kelly Zombro
Initial Attack Incident Commander on the Witch Fire, Operations Section Chief on the Witch Fire
"Between this fire and the Cedar Fire, the difference was experience. We understood the potential of this fire, whereas during the Cedar, it was beyond anyone's belief that it could get so big so fast and get so deadly.
"Before the fire, I coordinated with other fire and police departments, county roads--anyone who could be part of the solution. We moved resources around very quickly. That's the one thing I really take pride in.
"The bottom line: 4 years later we're burning the same places as the Cedar. If we keep getting strong winds like this, it will happen again. The Laguna Fire in the 1970s was the biggest fire until the Cedar. We have quite a pattern. If you look back farther in history, the Inaja Fire near Julian in the 1950s followed the path of the Cedar Fire and killed 13 people. The ironic part is that when the firefighters were killed, the winds changed and were coming out of the west, just like this time around. So, the same winds 4050 years earlier killed firefighters. It's history repeating itself. We're watching our rear ends.
"If we're lucky, it will be 1015 years before this happens again. We focus on the negative too much--86 percent of houses were saved. We must also remember what we're doing right. Communications are getting better and make the difference."
Captain Steve Salaz
San Diego Fire-Rescue Department
Office of Emergency Services Strike Team 68-40A
"We were protecting a bird farm and then the fire started coming down fast and hit a trailer park below us. The wind was pushing it through too fast. You would think about saving a trailer and it was gone that fast, in the second you took to think. Supposedly there was a guy who wouldn't leave and there was a guy looking for him, yelling at us that he was in there. And so we were looking all over for this guy as all the propane tanks started blowing off. It was like a war zone. At first it was scary but then an hour later we weren't even flinching as these things were going off all around us.
"The first night we were told to protect a future winery--the vines were planted but no grapes yet. We had to go over this big wood bridge that was surrounded by huge eucalyptus trees. We decided to wet down this bridge so we could get out if fire came through. I wasn't worried so much about the fire at that point--except for the trees, because they were all around and above us.
"The fire was coming and we were at the main house to make sure the winery didn't go. While we're defending the house, the fire hits two big trees and burns the bridge. I told everyone that we'd go to the vineyards in case fire came over us. Otherwise, we had no way out--we were surrounded by fire all night. It was eerie. Luckily, the owner had a tractor and the caretaker of the winery made a road so we could get out in the morning.
Deputy Chief Criss Brainard
San Diego Fire-Rescue Department
A Division Shift Commander
"I actually reviewed my notes from the Cedar Fire about 2 weeks prior to this event, specifically reviewing tactics and strategies and things I'd want to do differently if this were to happen again. I reviewed every death that occurred, thinking about how we might prevent them in the future. When we got the indication that this would be a bad fire, we called a preplanning meeting and got more fire crews and ambulances on the road than we've ever had. And despite all our efforts, in the extreme fire conditions of the first few hours we still got our butts kicked.
"On a normal shift, an aggressive fire attack on a structural fire is a life-saving strategy. But on this morning, pulling firefighters off burning structures to respond to rescue calls was like pulling a dog off a bone. To address rescue calls from citizens trapped in their homes, I dedicated a strike team to 'rescue group' and they wouldn't fight fire at all. In the end, these teams rescued 22 people from nine different addresses.
"My branch director during the Cedar Fire said that it was the first time in his career he felt like he was sending out firefighters who might not return. I started thinking about that now that I was in his position. You take it personally. As a firefighter, it's hard physically and emotionally. As a branch director, it's a different sort of difficulty. It's emotionally taxing, sitting and waiting for your crews. I didn't know the conditions some of these teams would face out there. I had to ask myself, would all of my crews return?
"It's extremely fortunate that more people weren't seriously injured or killed. The tireless dedication of our crews and their professionalism has everything to do with that."
Engineer/Paramedic Josh Krimston
Bonita-Sunnyside Fire Protection District
"We're assigned with our strike team so I worked with local firefighters. But we interacted with people from all over. One night, engines from Weed, Calif., up near Oregon, replaced us while we were protecting structures. We saw engines from Tahoe, Oregon and Nevada. I even saw some guys from Tijuana. The U.S. sent strike teams into Mexico for a fire a few years back, so maybe they were returning the favor.
"It wasn't until day 3 that we had resources pouring in from all over. It was eerie, seeing the exact same pictures and images as we saw during the Cedar Fire. It was déjà vu all over again. They told us that we would never see a career fire like that again, and now, 4 years later, it's the same.
"Getting gear ready--that's our preplanning. For the first few days it was non-stop work with little or no rest periods. That's unusual, but it happens. All the preplanning is great, but when something this large happens, resources go quickly. Mother Nature can be a ruthless teacher."
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