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Spotter looks down on backfiring operations on the saddle at the top of Winchester Canyon.

Ray Ford

Spotter looks down on backfiring operations on the saddle at the top of Winchester Canyon.


Backfires Near Lizard’s Mouth Are Textbook

Despite Dramatic Images, Fire Operations on the Crest Are Going Well


Tonight, Lizard’s Mouth was covered with fire.

When the flames from the Gap Fire finally got close enough to this unique sandstone outcropping, after days of avoiding it, the fire fighters were ready. They attacked with a succession of backfires lit with drip torches, fusees (similar to highway flares), and specially designed cartridges that are shot from what look like pistols.

Click to enlarge photo

Ray Ford

Within minutes the entire roadside was lit with two-story tall walls of flame. While on one side of the road, hand crews looked for spot fires, on the other side a pumper engine fed pressurized water through hundreds of feet of hose line to keep the fire in check.

Last Wednesday, July 2nd, the fire was still quite a ways from Lizard's Mouth.
Click to enlarge photo

Ray Ford

Last Wednesday, July 2nd, the fire was still quite a ways from Lizard’s Mouth.

Tonight, as I left the area that I named for its long reptilian snout about 30 years ago, the trail to Lizard’s Mouth was filled with smoke, pockets of fire, and numerous beds of glowing embers that pulsed a deep orange-red in the night sky.

The effect was extremely dramatic but not nearly so dangerous as it might appear.

The quarter-mile long sliver of unburned chaparral that stretches from Windermere to Lizard’s Mouth has proven extremely difficult to put out. Though not extensive in size, the rugged terrain and thick brush make it difficult to attack the fire directly. Instead, the crews have waited patiently for it to come to them.

Familiar rock silhouette near the Gun Club is surrounded by fire.
Click to enlarge photo

Ray Ford

Familiar rock silhouette near the Gun Club is surrounded by fire.

Over the past several days the crews have been there when the flames have pushed up towards the road. Preceded by thick columns of smoke which seem like all will be lost, there has been little difficulty in extinguishing the fire as it makes these dramatic runs.

Even today, as I made my way up to the top of the mountains, I found myself doubting the situation. From the Forest Service headquarters I counted a number of those columns, which from below seemed to have already crossed over to the back side of the crest.

So much of what we see in the Gap Fire fire is pure illusion. As I turned off onto West Camino Cielo, one of those columns seemed just over the near ridgeline a half-mile away. It turned out to be near the end of the paved section of the road at Lizard’s Mouth.

Of course, the smoke and fire was also safely on the coast side of Camino Cielo too - not by much but with the pumpers, other fire engines, hand crews and helicopters at the ready - the backfiring operations were going exactly as planned.

By Ray Ford

Hand crew member in the midst of the fire coming up slope. Fire hose is nearby to help keep the fire at bay.

I cannot tell you what an outstanding job these crews have done. Some of them are a third my age, barely old enough to have learned the hard lessons of how to fight fire in country as rugged as ours, yet I’m continually amazed at how well they can read the terrain, the shifting winds, and the many other factors that determine how the fire will behave, and apply appropriate tactics to the situation.

These are crews that have come from all parts of the country. Each time I meet a new group I ask where they are from and each day as I talk with them the distance they have travelled astounds me. The crew that caught the first bump up on the ridge was from Montana, while yesterday’s backfiring included crew members from Alaska.

I cannot think of any other occupation, apart from the armed forces, where you are required to go any place in the country on a moment’s notice, are immediately put into the most difficult of circumstances, and then devote your every effort to saving a community you may never visit again.

These fire fighters are absolutely extraordinary people.

Efforts further west above Winchester Canyon are going extremely well too. Just last Thursday I was at the Doty Ranch in upper Ellwood Canyon looking at charred hillsides and flames that seemed ready to head uphill towards the top of the mountains. At that point it was questionable whether fire efforts on the east and southern parts of the fire could be dealt with soon enough to allow fire fighters to concentrate on the west end of the fire.

Upper Winchester Canyon filled with smoke; down canyon winds push toward the ocean and help push the backfire away from the dozer lines and toward the black..
Click to enlarge photo

Ray Ford

Upper Winchester Canyon filled with smoke; down canyon winds push toward the ocean and help push the backfire away from the dozer lines and toward the black..

From my perspective at the top of Winchester Gun Club, the sight was as welcome as anything I’ve seen for a while. This is the second night in a row I’ve come up here to see if the ridgeline is holding. The crews have the wind at their backs again, making it easy to backfire along the ridge. All seems well.

While it is possible for conditions to change, there is a growing sense that fire fighters now have the upper hand.

Containment lines are increasing dramatically each day, fire activity is not nearly as intense as several days ago and additional crews are on their way to reinforce the efforts to hold the ridge and keep the fire east of Eagle Canyon.

The reasons to be more optimistic grow day by day.

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