California: A State of Fire

California: A State of Fire



She is a member of the female inmate work crew (opposite page) operating at the Roblar Fire in San Diego County.

Photo by Bill Clayton

At 2:57 p.m. on July 8, 1985, the California Department of Forestry’s (CDF) Division Chief Jim Bliss transmitted the largest single order for fire apparatus and manpower in the department’s history: “Dispatch an additional 125 engines, 45 hand crews,1 and 100 bulldozers.”

The veteran field commander had been directing the efforts of about 50 companies when the Lexington Fire,2 50 miles south of San Francisco, blew completely out of control, threatening some 2,400 rural and suburban homes. This was just one of the many fires that burned 400,000 acres of land in central, coastal, and southern California last June 30-July 13.

Due to the large number of fires statewide, Chief Bliss’ full request for equipment could not be met. However, through the assistance of 47 different fire agencies, 275 engines (some traveling 500 miles), 27 hand crews, 47 bulldozers, and aircraft (spotter planes, air tankers, etc.) responded to this 13,000-acre fire.

Firestorm—fire tornado. The in-draft at the sides of a firestorm starts (right) to generate severe wind conditions (see trees below) that signal the beginning of a fire tornado.

Photo by John Francois

Its power to pull structures apart is seen as a large piece of corrugated metal is drawn upward into the column of fire (bottom photo).

Photo by Bob Haydon

Photo by Bob Haydon

A member of one of the many hand crew companies (above) struggles in the hot, smoke-filled, windy environment of wildfire.

Photo by Bill Clayton

Continued on page 22

One of California's Department of Forestry’s C-119Js drops a fire retardant mixture on forest fuel in the path of the spreading Roblar Fire.

Photo by Howard Maxcy

Continued from page 19

Chief Bliss credits the statewide mutual aid program and the incident command system with providing the necessary resources and command structure to combat the fire. Fire forces were able to save most of the structures, losing only 24 houses and 7 mobile homes.

The Lexington Fire, like many of the more than 1,000 state wildfires that caused tens of millions of dollars of damage last summer, spread rapidly due to high temperatures (100°F+), low humidity (15% to 20%), and strong coastal winds. These conditions usually prevail during the fall Santa Ana wind period, when these hot winds dry out the fuel and drive the fires with great speed and intensity.

The first two major fires that began the 14-day siege erupted 10 miles apart in San Diego County almost simultaneously. At noon on June 30, the Miller Fire, 15 miles east of downtown San Diego, was placed under the command of CDF’s Division Chief Tom Kelly. Although the fire spread rapidly, damaging 8,000 acres and several structures, it was stopped that night by 40 engines, 20 hand crews, six bulldozers, and about three aircraft used to drop retardants ahead of the fire.

The second fire, touched off by arson, was smaller but much more damaging. Called the Normal Heights Fire, it occurred in the city of San Diego and consumed only 300 acres, but damaged 60 homes and totally destroyed 67 others. One hour after the fire’s start, the incident escalated from a fourthalarm assignment to a general alarm, bringing in some 97 engines from San Diego, Riverside, and Orange Counties.

On Monday, July 1, fatigued firefighters were faced with high, record breaking temperatures, very low humidities, and strong northwest winds. Major fires were starting throughout the state when the 15,000-acre Roblar Fire jumped the boundaries of the Marine base at Camp Pendleton, rapidly spreading into rural dwelling and agricultural areas. This fire was typical of several other fires that produced not only firestorms, but fire tornadoes as well.

CDF’s Division Chief George Toussaint and his command staff had just positioned 55 engines and 20 hand crews to mount a frontal attack on a rapidly advancing fire when a series of three fire tornadoes erupted, spurned by rough topography, massive flame production, and changing wind patterns. The first tornado, which lasted for about five minutes, contained little flame, but measured 300-400 feet in diameter at its base and moved to destroy a nursery in its path.

The second fire tornado developed 10 minutes after the first, but was a literal centrifuge of fire, 400 feet across and 2,000 feet high. It picked up the debris from the nursery, tossing large support timbers, 2X4s, and corrugated sheeting into the fire spout before setting them ablaze.

As the tornado moved toward a home, most firefighters abandoned their hoselines and ran to reposition their engines out of the path of the oncoming tornado. Chief Bob Robeson ordered out the last-stand engines as the tornado destroyed a large rural home, tossed it into the air, and set it on fire, drawing the roof sheeting, framing supports, and debris into the fire funnel.

When Captain Ben Anderson ordered his bulldozers to retreat, he saw a third tornado snap off fiveinch wide eucalyptus trees at ground level and ignite plywood sheets from a house 100 feet up in the air. He said “The sound of the fire was like a diesel locomotive.”

The in-draft of the tornado, which works on the same principle as backdraft in a structural fire, picked up small rocks and pelted firefighters as the fire developed its own 80 mph winds. The storm ended six or seven minutes later with no serious injuries.

Continued on page 24

At San Luis Obispo, CA, 40 engine companies make a stand along Highway 101, hoping to halt the 78,000-acre Las Pillas wildfire.

photo by Dave Lewis

Large structures, such as this private dwelling in San Diego County, lay as fodder to a fast-spreading wildfire.

Photo by Bill Clayton

Continued from page 22

The CDF, the U.S. Forest Service, and a multitude of other agencies reached peak strength on July 10, 1985. Ten-thousand three-hundred personnel operated the following equipment on some 27 multiple-alarm fires:

A free-standing chimney towers alone over the ashes of complete destruction. The melted hobby horse gives mute testimony to the lives shattered by wildfire.

Photo by Bill Clayton

When the final damage was counted, 346 firefighters had been injured, 215 homes destroyed, hundreds of vehicles and smaller buildings lost, 400,000 acres of land burned, and tens of millions of dollars of damage amassed.

Throughout this ordeal, many engine companies adopted a hitand-run strategy, going from fire to fire. A single hand crew was typically assigned to 13 major fires in 15 days, putting in 11,822 fire line hours. In the face of a large firestorm, and without engine support, one hand crew executed a backfire that saved two houses and 20 mobile homes.

From June 27 to July 15, the CDF responded to 1,233 state wildfires and several hundred local area fires. Of these, 294 reached multiple alarm status (requiring 10 or more ground or air units) and 54 were classified as major fires. The department’s busiest days were July 4, with 43 multiple alarms, and July 10, with 27 multiple alarms including 15 major incidents.

At the worst part of the siege, the CDF had only 95 engines (57% of engine stations vacant), 12 hand crews (7% of total strength), and no aircraft available for initial attacks.

This was the heaviest pre-fall fire season activity in CDF’s history.

1 Hand crews consist of a captain and 16-17 firefighters operating chain saws and axes to cut fire breaks They also assist in manning hose lines and attacking fires.

2 Fires are named for the geographical location in which they began. For example, the Miller Fire began at Miller s farm.

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