The terrible loss of 19 firefighters hit home in a personal and tragic way when the community learned that the nephew of current Operations Chief Terry McElwee and grandson of former Fire Chief Herb McElwee was one of those who perished in the deadly Yarnell Fire in Arizona on Sunday. It is a reminder that those who head out to the lines when a wildfire breaks out put their lives at risk every time they do so.
I was at the top of Inspiration Point during the Jesusita Fire covering what seemed then to be the breaking news that the fire was heading north up the steep, brush-covered flanks towards Cathedral Peak and the potential of overrunning fire lines stretched along East Camino Cielo. At the same time it was clear the fire had also pushed east, crossed Mountain Drive and was threatening the Montecito community as well.
Below me I could see the Los Prietos Hot Shots working frantically on the ridge immediately above Mission Canyon with the support of air tankers, retardant and water-dropping helicopters. About 1:30PM that afternoon the wind suddenly shifted, turning from a 20MPH uphill wind to a 30-40MPH wind storm heading directly down into Mission Canyon. I quickly retreated back to the viewpoint near Inspiration Point where there was sufficient burned out ground to create a safe zone and was joined by the LP crew and 3-4 other crews from various out-of-town fire departments. Though safe, we were surrounded by burning vegetation, forcing us to wait out the fire until it had burned past us.
The next hour was one of the most agonizing I’ve spent covering fires: surrounded by crews with handheld radios they could hear what was happening below but could do little about it. The radios told a horrible story: houses on fire; calls from elderly victims unable to leave their homes, impassable roads due to the thick smoke and intense fire. Then a number of reports that chilled me. Radio reports of firefighters trapped in structures, taking refuge in structures, or taking refuge in their engine were being reported. At 4:08 PM that Wednesday, May 6 2009, the first report of injured firefighters was received.
The CalFire review report on the Jesusita Fire Burnover noted the firefighters’ difficulties: “Narrow roads, extreme fire behavior, downed powerlines, and heavy smoke conditions precluded fire suppression resources from exiting the area, as well as hampering resources from entering into the area to assist. Residents who remained in their homes within the evacuation area sought refuge with various engine companies in various locations. Multiple homes were burning adding to the heavy smoke and extreme temperatures. Some water systems within the residential area lost volume and pressure.”
At that moment it was not clear if there would be serious injuries to the residents or firefighters but the radio reports did not bode well for either. As it turned out there were no civilian fatalities or injuries but a number of the fire engine crew members from Ventura County Fire suffered smoke inhalation and both 1st, 2nd and 3rd degree burns, not life threatening injuries but serious enough to need hospitalization.
As noted in the report, when the the strike team leader arrived earlier that day he scouted the area along Spyglass Ridge, identified safety zones, noted specific structures that he felt were defendable and where the engine crew could stay and defend them and then established a safety zone at the end of a cul-de-sac along Spyglass Ridge Road. At that point the team seemed well prepared to defend the homes. What they could not expect was the quick change in wind and the ferocity with which it pushed the flames downhill from the Inspiration Point area and directly onto them. Sundowners winds had been predicted by NOAA to surface later in the day but not at mid-afternoon.
A little bit after 6PM after the fire had passed our location and I was able to make my way back down to my truck on the San Roque side of the fire perimeter, I drove down and over to Mission Canyon to survey the damage. Many houses were still on fire, others reduced to chimneys and concrete foundations. On Spyglass the damage was even greater. Though the injured firefighters had been sent on to the hospital, I stood watching one last house burn to the ground — the one at which the fireifghters had been stationed.
According to the CalFire report, conditions were not favorable to the crew. It noted the narrowness of Spyglass Ridge Road, barely 14’ in width with no room for two-way traffic. A long, narrow driveway overgrown with native vegetation, the location of the residence as it sits at the top of three drainages, with heavy fuel loading and numerous structures and out buildings that caused fire behavior to greatly increase and caused the fire to funnel up the driveway which was also the escape route back to the crew’s engines.
These are the conditions under which most of the firefighters can expect to find themselves when the call comes in and the fire is eating its way through the Santa Ynez Mountain foothills. Narrow roads, vegetation that easily allows fires to spread horizontally, hot temperatures, heavy winds and homes clustered throughout the foothills that can be difficult to defend. They do it with a sense of pride, a love for their job and a grim determination to save every house even at their own peril.
Today is a day to celebrate those who protect us when the wildfires threaten our community and to remember those who have fallen in giving us their all.