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A long, fiery summer?

Posted: June 16th, 2017 | Features, News, Top Stories | No Comments

By Doug Curlee | Editor at Large

Heavy rains this winter means more fuel as fire season peaks

“Scary! It was very scary to see flames that close to my house.”

Brenda Wise recalls the afternoon of May 22 more clearly than she wants to. The flames of what was named the “Rock Fire” were only a few hundred feet from her house at the end of Big Rock Road in Santee.

Firefighters practice battling fires in Mission Trails Park during exercises in late April. (Photo by David Cooksy)

She’s more than grateful that area fire agencies jumped on the fire and held it to about 10 acres.

“Once they got here, they knocked it down really quickly,” she said.

You might wonder, “Why all the worry, and why were all these resources thrown at such a little fire?”

It’s because the fire’s ignition point was not in Santee — it was just on the other side of a rail fence that marks the area of a small corner of Mission Trails Regional Park.

That’s the edge of 7,220 acres of fuel for fires. Fuel that ranges in and out of canyons and pretty rough terrain. Terrain that would be hard to fight in.

The attack on the Rock Fire happened so quickly because, unlike some fires in the past, there was absolutely no argument about whose fire it was to fight.

The ignition point of the Rock Fire, which is under investigation as a possible arson (Photo by Doug Curlee)

It was quickly determined that the lead agency was San Diego Fire-Rescue, but a first alarm was called through Heartland Fire.

That enabled all the agencies involved to respond, and respond they did.

Heartland Fire, Santee Fire, CalFire, and county and state air resources were instantly involved.

Between crews on the ground and the aerial attacks, the fire was quickly reduced to almost a training exercise for all agencies.

“We learned a whole lot from the firestorms of 2003 and 2007,” said San Diego Battalion Chief Dan Froelich. “Back then, we had a lot of problems communicating with each other. We didn’t always know where everyone was, and we often couldn’t contact them, because we didn’t have much of anything in the way of common radio channels. Most, if not all, of that has gone away.”

(A personal memory here. Back in 2003, I was among a number of television reporters racing around in live trucks, trying to catch up with the hot spots and report on them. We came across a truck and crew from the federal firefighters at Miramar. They were parked at a gas station at Convoy and State Route 52. They wanted to help, but couldn’t, because they couldn’t talk to anyone. No radios, and cell phones were totally overloaded. They had no idea where they might be needed, and no idea how to get there. That, thankfully, is no longer a problem for anyone.)

“We’ve come a long, long way since then.” said Santee Fire Chief Richard Smith. “We can all talk to each other. We have common radio channels so that everyone can hear everyone else. We have the ability to stay absolutely current on the situation, and move where and when we need to.”

Firefighters from multiple agencies prepare to conduct exercises in Mission Trails Park ahead of fire season. (Photo by David Cooksy)

And there is little doubt that there will be that need to.

Fire officials are quite clear about one thing: Fire season in San Diego is now year-round.

Much of San Diego — especially in our area of interest for Mission Times Courier — are prime areas for fire danger.

Think about how many homes in San Carlos, Del Cerro, Allied Gardens, and even Grantville, sit on the edge of, or in, canyons.

Eddie Villavicencio keeps track of such things for the Fire Department, and he points out there are 46,000 homes sitting on canyon rims. Many of them have brush growing right up to their backyards.

Many of those are in our area.

With the rains we had this past winter, the brush and grasses are more heavily overgrown than usual.

It’s what the experts call the wildland/urban interface, where homes are in the middle of prime fire areas.

Think back to 2003, and 2007.

How many homes were destroyed in Tierrasanta? Scripps Ranch? How fast did those fires move?

Fire officials make the case that they are now much, much more capable of fighting them than they were then, and they are.

A helicopter dumps water on Mission Trails Park during exercises in late April. (Photo by David Cooksy)

All the agencies train more or less constantly to hone that edge. A prime example was a three-day training exercise at the edge of Mission Trails Regional Park back in April.

CalFire spokesman Isaac Sanchez said it worked well, and also pointed to the improvements in communication that the 2003-2007 firestorms brought about.

“One of many improvements is the 800 megahertz radios we now have that we didn’t back then. It makes staying in constant touch with each other easier,” he said.

The training makes all the fire agencies more coordinated and interrelated. It gets everyone used to working with each other, and avoids jurisdictional squabbles that sometimes used to complicate efforts. They say they are as ready as they can be for a long, hot summer.

But they admit that they’re worried — very worried.

The Rock Fire made them all think about what happens if a massive fire gets a foothold in Mission Trails Regional Park, one of the jewels in San Diego’s crown.

That is 7,220 acres of dry grasses and bushes — 7,220 acres of fuel.

—Doug Curlee is Editor at Large. Reach him at doug@sdcnn.com.

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