Tales of heroism and narrow escape after an epic week on the front lines
Firefighters recall the quest to save communities as worst fires since Yellowstone wane.
POWAY, CALIF. — At almost every house, Tim O'Donoghue's tan Suburban truck pauses. The signs of the firestorm that swept through this San Diego neighborhood of ranch homes and red-tile roofs are as obvious as charred palms and the pink coating of flame retardant that covers walls and roadways like a second skin.
But the firefighter reads each scorched bush and lawn like runes of a story seared into the earth itself. It's a somber tour after a long week.
The burned stucco beneath a broken window is where fire licked into one house. Not far away, he remembers standing on a trash can spraying flaming leaves out of a gutter with a garden hose. He makes a turn and the street opens into a wide-angle view of an ash-carpeted canyon tangled in the sinuous fingers of a blackened forest. He recalls watching the fire come until it arched over his head in a canopy of flame and soot that blotted out the sun.
This weekend, as California's fire lines finally grew quiet, it was a time for firefighters not only to prepare for hotter weather forecast for this week, but also to look back and pass along stories of fortitude and fortune from one of the most destructive conflagrations in American history. They were told from truck to truck beside smoldering roadsides, amid hillsides of dying embers, and in base camps swelled by yellow-jacketed men and women at last hoping to turn home.
In fires that claimed an area of southern California larger than Rhode Island - killing 20 and destroying more than 3,000 homes - not all the stories ended in success. But here in Poway residents emerged from their homes to shake the hand of the sandy-haired, sturdy man they saw stand against the fire's surge just days earlier. All along the ridges that ripple east of San Diego where firefighters battled similar stories echoed - the retelling of the awesome fury of nature and the courage to defy it.
"Some of these young guys will be talking about this one like the old crusters talk about the [fires] in the 1970s," says Mr. O'Donoghue.
For good reason. Statistically speaking, there are few fires that can compare. In total, the 10 southern California fires that have burned since Oct. 21 have consumed nearly 740,000 acres, making the event the largest wildfire in the United States since Yellowstone in 1988. While the more than 12,000 firefighters still on-duty early Sunday had most of the blazes under control, fire officials say the drier weather expected to arrive this week could ignite fires anew.
Over the weekend, though, a welcome wet drizzle turned much of the Cedar Fire - more than twice as large as any of the other fires - to a desolate landscape of smoke and ash that, in places, spreads to every horizon. O'Donoghue has seen much of it. As union representative for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF), he had come here only by coincidence - for a meeting with a local chapter and some surfing with his college-age daughter. Since the fires began, he has shuttled to every corner of the Cedar Fire to check in with crews, one day putting more than 320 miles on his Suburban.
But when he pulls amid the houses of Poway, he lingers. A week ago, he and a colleague had come here to show a state Assemblyman's staffer the front lines of the Cedar Fire and to help out where no firefighters could be spared. Before the three left, the blaze poured over the canyon walls and enveloped them a river of fire.
"It was so far beyond what I ever could have imagined," says the staffer, Laura Ortega.
Ms. Ortega, in fact, had started to snap pictures when the fire crested a ridge top some two miles away. O'Donoghue told her to save her film. As the fire approached, aircraft pitched and banked into the narrow channels of the canyon, one every five minutes, spewing feathery pink loads of flame-retardant, while O'Donoghue and the president of the CDF scrambled from house to house, moving wood piles, tossing plastic chairs into pools, and imploring residents to leave.
When the last one did - skittering down the suburban streets at about 40 m.p.h. in his Mini Cooper - the debris carried on the first winds of the coming fire overtook his car. The rest was blackness. At mid-day, "it literally appeared to be midnight," says Ortega. Birds rained down from the billows of smoke, and winds swept down the sluice of the canyon "so strongly that you couldn't walk into it," she adds.
This was the firestorm, and during the height of the fires last week, crews from north of Los Angeles to the Mexico border were dealing with them on a frequency and intensity few had seen before. When one crew was defending a similar suburb in Ramona, north of the Cedar Fire, they saw a trampoline lifted 60 feet in the air and lawn chairs dancing through the ash like Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz."
"This was everything that I imagine the end of the world to be," says Mod Vega, who has swung Pulaskis shovels for the Fullerton (Calif.) Fire Department for almost 25 years.
"The fire just laughs at you," says Mike Brown of the Union City (Calif.) Fire Department, who was caught in a different firestorm during the Cedar Fire.
As with the Fullerton firefighters, O'Donoghue had to simply hunker down and hope that the preparation work he did would hold. And as with the Fullerton firefighters, it did - only a few houses were lost. A week later, residents still remember the voice that chased them all off, and the tan truck with "CDF" scrawled in white shoe polish on the side.
As O'Donoghue stands in the cul-de-sac where he watched the fire come, the three homeowners seem stuck on repeating "Thank you," making little effort to move onto any other words. In Ramona, it was the same for the Fullerton firefighters, where Adam Loeser remembers one homeowner "was pretty stoked."
On this day, the young firefighter is again dressed from tip to toe in his yellow uniform, again digging ditches though the dirt to stop a fire.
But amid the raindrops and fleeting flashes of sun, there is no wall of flame, only a hollowed out crisp of a tree trunk flickering with little more menace than a Bic lighter. The dire days are behind, and tedium of mopping up is just beginning, but as he works beside Mr. Vega, the warmth of the gratitude he has felt in recent days still burns brightly and presses them on.
"When we go into [nearby] El Cajon, we can't buy a meal," because residents always pay, says Vega, leaning on his shovel. "I still wake up in the morning eager to go to work. The day I got this job, I felt like I had won the lottery."
For Nick Burtman, it is why he is a firefighter. The day he decided to quit his job at Sun Microsystems and go from a volunteer to a professional firefighter was when he revived a child who had stopped breathing. "That was the moment," he says, looking every bit the Boy Scout with short blond hair and eager blue eyes.
Sitting in a Shriner's lodge atop the mountain peaks east of San Diego, he knows he could walk a few hundred yards and look over the scorched humps of the Cuyamaca highlands for miles. He saw the fire coming. It got so close that his strike team even coated the lodge in a watery foam. But the flames never made it, and black and white pictures still hang inside, telling of a history that stretches back to the 1920s.
And now it will have a future, too. "I've only seen a small part of [the destruction] and it blows me away," he says. "But I try to look more at what I did to help people."