Tasting soot and defeat

A firefighter watches a backfire burn off East Grade Road on Palomar Mountain after nightfall.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

Poway, Calif.

As the last of the ashes fell and the fire moved on, they returned, like vanquished warriors, to survey their losses.

In northern San Diego County on Wednesday, firefighters went back in to douse hot spots left behind after the Witch fire ravaged the region before marching on toward the coast. But before attending to their task, some paused on the blackened hills, removing their helmets and, holding them to their chests, allowing themselves a moment to take in the destruction.


For three days, this had been their battleground. Some went 70 hours without sleep. Some were left coughing up wads of soot. They had taken on one of the fiercest blazes to ever strike the state. And in many instances they had lost decisively -- a troubling experience for many of the 9,000 firefighters working this week across Southern California.

“Firefighters are a particular breed,” said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Battalion Chief Doug Lannon, a 35-year veteran and a commander of the effort to fight the Witch fire. “We do not like to lose.”

And yet, by Wednesday evening, more than 1,800 structures, including 1,600 homes, had been destroyed in blazes that stretched from Santa Paula to the Mexican border.

The mop-up that began Wednesday was conducted with as much resignation as resolve. This fire, many firefighters said, was particularly tough, leaving them with the sense that they had been overwhelmed and outwitted by the flames, undermanned from the start.

“On a normal day, you go to work and get called to a house fire and it’s big news -- the biggest call you’ll be on all week,” said Dave Orozco, 41, a San Diego Fire Department engineer, as he climbed into his truck Wednesday to start his next 24-hour shift.

“Here, you pull up to a house that is fully engulfed in flames, and you look at it for a minute, and you say: ‘That one’s gone.’ And you move on to the next one. You’re triaging. You’re writing off houses so fast you become numb to it.”

On Wednesday, they saw what remained. On one lot, steppingstones led to what was once a front door, past spotlights buried in the ivy to backlight the pine trees out front. But the house itself had been reduced to a concrete slab, on which sat a blistered sculpture of Kokopelli, the stooped flute player often featured in Southwest art.

Down the block, fake logs were resting in a stone fireplace, the only piece of a house still standing. Nearby, on what had been the patio, were four metal deck chairs, all angled to take in the hills rising above Lake Hodges.

The only surviving remnants at many homes were made of metal, which sat atop the ashes like nuggets in a prospector’s pan. In one house, in what had been the kitchen, there was a spatula and a colander. In another, a set of barbells. In another, a teakettle on a stove burner.

This week’s firestorms haven’t matched, on paper, the devastating San Diego fires of 2003.

But several firefighters said the blazes that struck this week were just as intense, as was their maddening nature. Firefighters were forced time and again to retreat from positions they thought were safe, to scramble for new defensive positions when the fire jumped a road or a fire line they thought was impenetrable.

“If this fire had a personality, it was relentless,” said Poway Fire Division Chief Kevin Kitch. “It was fast, hard, furious. It was push, push, push, push.”

On the ground, at the height of the blazes, firefighters were frequently forced to run from advancing flames.

“It’s hard to explain what it was like in there,” said San Diego Fire Department Engineer Rich Marcello, 37. “You’re getting hit with embers the size of golf balls, even baseballs. You get hit, and there’s nothing you can do. You’ve just got to take it and go.”

State forestry department spokesman Fred Orsborn has been a firefighter about 30 years.

The look on the faces of the firefighters returning from the front lines of the Harris fire along the Mexican border was something he’d seen before: when his father, Jim Orsborn, a firefighter for 50 years before he retired in 1998, returned from the notorious Laguna fire in 1970.

That blaze burned 30 miles toward the west in a single day, eventually destroying 382 homes and killing six people.

“You could just see it in his eyes,” Fred Orsborn said. “He had seen some horrible things.”

This week’s fires also opened the door to something seldom expressed: public criticism of firefighters.

“Look,” Shauket Bandani said Wednesday evening, pointing toward a yellow fire hydrant at the end of a driveway leading to the burned-out shell of what had been his brother Abe’s house. “It was never touched.”

The house was in a swanky patch of estate homes in the north end of Poway, dotted with newly imported palm trees and terra cotta roofs, and paved with cul-de-sacs and circular driveways. No fire engine, Bandani said, ever made it to the house.

“Yesterday, I was still putting out embers in the frontyard with a garden hose,” Bandani said. “My brother said: ‘Where are my tax dollars going?’ ”

Firefighters, while dismayed by the losses, make no apologies.

The fire was so ferocious, in part, because new developments have been built against canyons that act as funnels for the Santa Ana winds. Indeed, Poway calls itself “the City in the Country” -- a quaint selling point, perhaps, but precisely the problem from a firefighting standpoint.

Local governments, firefighters said, have been unable to keep pace with the explosive suburban growth.

“The area is growing at an astronomical rate. We can’t keep up,” Marcello said. “You can’t just say, ‘I want to build a new fire station,’ and then it just happens overnight. It takes years.”

That, combined with the further strain on resources because of the sheer number of fires throughout the region, left many areas woefully short on personnel.

At an evacuation center and makeshift command post at Steele Canyon High School in southern San Diego County, state forestry department Capt. Scott McLean -- a commander of the battle against the Harris fire -- said he had 1,200 firefighters on the front lines.

That, he said, was “a little less than a third of what we need to fight a fire this big.”

The blaze, which had already chewed through more than 73,000 acres and destroyed more than 200 structures, had just jumped a perimeter control line, forcing firefighters to scramble into new defensive positions.

Meanwhile, he said, smaller spot fires continued to flare up in areas where crews thought they had suppressed the blaze.

“They’re tired,” he said. “They’ve got a long road to go as well.”

In spite of it all, there were remarkably heroic stands this week. In Poway, for instance, residents huddled together Monday night, their faces wrapped in T-shirts, and watched a massive wall of flames rip through homes on a hillside east of Espola Road. The flames barreled down the hill toward them.

Firefighters pledged to keep the flames from jumping the road to a neighborhood of hundreds of tightly packed ranch-style homes. All night Monday, they battled. They were so exhausted that some could no longer speak in complete sentences, they said. But they fought on.

“You’d see a spot, an ember and -- bam! -- you’d hit it,” Kitch said.

When the sun rose Tuesday, it showed that every tree along a half-mile stretch of the wrong side of Espola had been blackened by the embers.

But nothing behind those trees had been touched.

At least 85 houses were lost in Poway. But many more were saved.

“The deck was stacked, and the losses do take their toll,” Kitch said.

“But this was the most extreme of situations. Total victory is unachievable. We’re very, very proud.”