As the flames roared closer, 29-year-old Jim Bell calmly started his bulldozer and headed off into danger, spending desperate hours clearing tinder-dry brush around threatened homes until the blaze finally forced him to retreat.
He worked through the night Monday, wherever he could help, and was still behind the wheel of his bulldozer Tuesday as California Department of Forestry officials announced that the 3,000-acre fire in a canyon of posh homes near Escondido was nearly encircled. Bell happened to be in the area working on a recreational area for the Olivenhain Municipal Water District when the fire erupted.
“I was trying to save people’s houses. I’ve worked up here, and these are good folks. It wasn’t because I was trying to be a hero, that’s for sure,” said Bell, crusted with dirt and ash from his bent-brimmed cowboy hat down to his boots.
But to John Love, who had barely known Bell before now, the courage of a man who isn’t even a resident of the fire area represented heroism that spared some residents the agony of finding their homes and belongings in smoldering ruins.
“He went up there like John Wayne,” Love said. “He saved my house, I know he did.”
Besides bravery and determination, this fire is also about foolishness.
Fire officials say it was started Monday afternoon by somebody target shooting. Shell casings were found near the origin of the fire.
“I understand it was a high-powered weapon of some type,” said CDF Capt. A. D. Hill, who speculated that sparks from the gun’s muzzle flash might have ignited brush. He said there are no suspects and asked any witnesses to contact authorities.
Throughout Tuesday, 776 firefighters continued battling hot spots while many of the 200 to 300 residents of Mt. Israel Road, a rustic community west of Del Dios Highway in the Lake Hodges area, returned to their canyon homes after spending the night sheltered by family, friends or the Red Cross.
By late Tuesday, the number of firefighters had been reduced to 176, and two more minor injuries to firefighters had been reported. One firefighter suffered heat exhaustion and another from a bee sting, CDF spokeswoman Cele Cundari said.
More than 100 dwellings were imperiled in the Mt. Israel area, yet the racing flames damaged only five houses for an estimated loss of $100,000, according to CDF. Some outside structures and vehicles also were burned in the fire, which left a thick, pungent haze over the area and hillsides covered with ash and the bony remains of trees and tall bushes.
As of late Tuesday, the fire had been 85% contained, and CDF officials expected it to be extinguished by 6 p.m. today.
Although the end seemed near Tuesday evening, firefighters were anxiously putting out small fires and worrying that, if the wind picked up, flames still could roar northwest to the populated Harmony Grove area of Escondido.
With the temperature 95 degrees in the shade during the day and humidity low, conditions were “less than ideal” for containment, Hill said.
“That’s our main concern, that the fire doesn’t go into Harmony Grove,” Hill said.
Just when firefighters were tempted to feel relief that an area was safe, the fire would give them an alarming surprise.
On Monday, the firefighters struggled to block the blaze from jumping east over Del Dios Highway into the lakeside hamlet of Del Dios. Then, on Tuesday, a rat caught fire and ran east across the highway, torching brush perilously close to the town.
Helicopters quickly swooped down on Lake Hodges, filled huge baskets with 125 to 400 gallons of water, and conducted an air strike on the burning brush.
“Any one of those hot spots, the wind can kick up and blow it down on the lake,” said Ken Rice, a battalion chief with the San Diego Fire District. Air tankers dumping fire retardant were also used in the battle.
Feeling relieved and less threatened, many residents who had been ordered Monday to leave their homes or were blocked from going up Mt. Israel to rescue possessions, went back Tuesday to inspect their property.
Ray Saatjian, his hair matted with sweat, inspected his 16-year-old rose business, finding the heat and flames had damaged seven of his eight greenhouses and ruined 15,000 of his 45,000 rose bushes.
He labored furiously to save the remaining bushes.
“The roses are dry, what’s left of them. They need water but the (water) line is burned around the perimeter,” he said.
Despite the CDF’s damage estimate, Saatjian believes he suffered a $90,000 uninsured loss. With insurance so expensive, “you’re pretty much on your own,” he said. He plans to begin again.
“We have no choice, we have to pull together and rebuild.”
The melted plastic on some greenhouses hung like sails tattered in a storm, and the land around him was barren and charred. Still, he was thankful about two things.
Firefighters “were marvelous, they did a terrific job of keeping me informed,” he said. “They went out of their way to make sure we were comforted.”
He also is confident that the burned brush will provide little fuel for any more fires.
“Now it will be many years before there’s the potential for a fire of this magnitude,” Saatjian said.
Although there have been fires over the years, longtime area residents say this was the worst blaze since 1944. What made the fire so dramatic and fast-moving was the underbrush that has grown up over the years.
Up the road from Saatjian, Love, whose house was saved by Bell’s bulldozer, said a year ago that he and a partner bought four older homes on 40 acres, and have been rehabilitating the dwellings.
He lives in one of the houses and spent Monday not knowing the fate of his property. Blocked by flames from reaching his house, he turned back to spend a sleepless night in his partner’s condo, returning Tuesday morning to find his home had been spared.
Fire had blackened the land around his house, but the flames kept 10 feet away from the structure because of the fire break Bell had made.
As grateful as he was to Bell, that’s how angry Love felt towards whoever started the fire with illegal target shooting.
“Nobody respects a no-trespassing sign,” he said. “You can bet your ass they were on private property.”
Love has determined to stay on Mt. Israel and believes any place a person lives carries a risk.
“It looks like a fire pit--like walking into the inside of a potbellied stove. But, in six months, it’s going to be lush green and serene,” he said.
Although many residents returned to their homes, Jerry Somohano of the Red Cross expected to find shelter again Tuesday night for perhaps 100 people whose homes lacked utility service.
“We have people with no power or light and nowhere to go,” he said.
Pacific Bell said Tuesday that telephone service was lost to about 40 customers, but that service should be restored by today.
San Diego Gas & Electric Co. reported that the fire destroyed two power transformers, five poles and accompanying power lines, cutting power to about a dozen homes. New poles were being helicoptered in Tuesday night, but SDG&E; spokeswoman Barbara Burton wasn’t certain when power would resume.
Meanwhile, most of the 180 horses that were evacuated by volunteers Monday had been reclaimed by their owners Tuesday.
The animals had been taken to Showpark Riding Club in Del Mar and the Del Mar Fairgrounds by individuals and animal rescue groups, including the Humane Society’s Animal Rescue Reserve.
The horses, along with a goat, two mules and a dog, were boarded free by the two facilities and fed with hay donated or purchased by the Humane Society.
Times staff writer Tom Gorman contributed to this story.