Firefighters make progress containing Alpine wildfire


Fire crews have made solid progress containing Friday’s biggest blaze, boosting containment of the West Fire significantly overnight.

About 7:30 a.m., Cal Fire San Diego announced that the wildfire still burning near Alpine is now 30 percent contained and has consumed 400 acres, the same number released 10 hours earlier when containment was estimated at just 5 percent.

Wind-driven embers cause the West Fire to spread quickly from its ignition point near Interstate 8 and West Willows Road, causing evacuations as some homes burnt to the ground. Cal Fire said that, so far, 18 structures have been destroyed and eight more damaged. Evacuation orders remain in place until further notice.


“Crews are making good progress,” said Cal Fire Capt. Kendall Bortisser. “Damage assessment teams are still out there. There are still some areas they haven’t gotten into. The number of structures destroyed and damaged will likely go up as they continue to work on their assessment.”

He said officials are putting a plan together this morning figuring out what roads to reopen.

“They’re working to get this stuff done so we can get people back to their homes,” Bortisser said.

Declared a local emergency by Friday afternoon, the West Fire presented special challenges for firefighters as it appeared to hopscotch through neighborhoods. And the weather wasn’t helping. As they push for full containment, crews will continue to toil in the summer’s first real heat wave which sent temperatures to 108 in Alpine Friday. Saturday’s high is predicted to reach 103 degrees.

Alpine resident Kiersten Pinard was among those scrambling to grab what she could and get out as the fire chewed through a home four houses down the road.

“I was super scared, super upset … (thinking) that our house was going to be gone,” said Pinard, who was forced to evacuate from a different Alpine home during the 2003 fires. “But you know, my husband was at work, my daughter was at school, so we were safe. That’s the most important thing.”

The fire delivered relatively-random doses of devastation.

“There are homes that are perfectly untouched, and others that are burned to the ground,” Alpine Fire Protection District Chief Bill Paskle said.

By 5 p.m., fire crews were able to stop the fire from continuing to spread forward.

Dubbed the West fire, it was the largest of three brush fires reported in the county Friday. One burned about 10 acres and at least one large structure in Dulzura in East County and another was threatening homes on the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base in North County.

Fire crews from around the county joined the fight in Alpine to protect residences set amid tall trees and landscaping along winding roads.

Shortly before 2:30 p.m., county officials proclaimed it a local emergency — a move that requests all federal and state assistance that may be available.

By a 4 p.m. news briefing, Cal Fire officials said 400 acres had been scorched with 5 percent containment, and forward progress of the fire had almost stopped.

One Alpine firefighter suffered slight burns on his face and was hospitalized overnight.

“We have made great progress (on the fire) but there is still a lot of work to be done,” said Cal Fire Capt. Kendal Bortisser.

Officials had no count on how many structures had burned, nor how many people had been evacuated. There was also no estimate of when people might be able to return to their homes.

By late afternoon, most of the hot spots bedeviling crews were located in between homes. Many were “damaged, destroyed or continuing to burn,” Cal Fire Chief Daryll Pina said, adding that until that situation is control, no one will be allowed back home.

Pina also said there was no plan to fly firefighting aircraft into the night.

“We have made great progress (on the fire) but there is still a lot of work to be done.”

— Cal Fire Capt. Kendal Bortisser

Early on, a heavy column of gray smoke could be seen on television news footage billowing westward, pushed by winds on what was on record as the hottest day of the year so far.

Temperatures in Alpine were reported at 108 degrees at noon, according to the National Weather Service.

A little later in the afternoon, winds were out of the northeast at 4 miles an hour, gusting to 19 miles an hour, according to meteorologist Adam Roser of the National Weather Service.

Flames first were reported south of I-8 near the West Willows Road off-ramp in the East County rural community about 11:20 a.m. By 1 p.m., the blaze had grown to 150 acres; by 2:30 p.m. it had consumed an estimated 350 acres.

Cal Fire officials by mid-afternoon said the rate of spread was deemed “critical,” meaning that it was fast-moving.

Aerial television footage showed what appeared to be five or six mobile homes and vehicles on fire. Later footage showed single family homes catching fire.

Soon after the West fire began, the Sheriff’s Department’s Alpine station tweeted that immediate evacuations were needed in the Highland Mobile Home park and the surrounding community. That information later was corrected to say the Alpine Oaks park was evacuated, not Highland.

At the Alpine Oaks Mobile Home Park, firefighters sprayed foam as multiple homes burned. The county later issued a boil-water order for the 66 homes at the park, citing fire damage to the park’s water system.

Aside from the park, homes destroyed by fire were spotted on several streets, including Olive View, Scenic View, Viejas View and Pine View, as well as on South Grade.

A spokeswoman for the Cleveland National Forest said fire ground crews were trying to hold the line on South Grade Road, to prevent flames from bearing down further south and west toward town.

Officials said evacuees could go to Viejas Casino, at 5000 Willows Road, where the Red Cross set up a canteen with drinks and snacks.

Red Cross spokeswoman Emily Cox said an overnight shelter was opened at Los Coches Creek Middle School, 9669 Dunbar Ln. east of El Cajon. Companion pets were to be allowed there.

In the parking lot outside the shelter, Ben Stanfill sat sweating on a rock, his motorcycle helmet propped on a smaller rock at his feet.

He got a call at 1:10 p.m. from his mother, asking him to go to her house and pick up her cat. He raced there on his motorcycle, where he met up with his sister and her boyfriend.

A little before 4 p.m., Stanfill, his mother, his sister and her boyfriend all finally arrived together, loaded down with whatever they could take.

“We just grabbed everything you can’t replace or re-buy,” Stanfill said. “My grandma’s photographs, the cat, my sister’s Mickey Mouse teddy bear she’s had since she was little.”

Stanfill’s mother’s house was not in a mandatory evacuation area, but the family just wanted to be safe. As of about 4 p.m., they didn’t know how close the blaze might be to her home.

“Now we just wait and see,” Stanfill said.

Power lines in the area burned, initially knocking out electricity to 1,682 customers, according to the San Diego Gas & Electric Co. website. Most of those customers had power restored by 3:30 p.m.

Area resident Enrique Camargo said he ran toward the fire area to check its progress after getting word that he was supposed to evacuate. As he checked on the fire, he said, his wife was home packing the car.

He said was still not sure if they would follow through with evacuating.

“Let’s see what happens,” Camargo said.

Another resident, who asked not to use his last name, said in a cell phone call Friday about 1:30 p.m. he was perhaps 600 yards from the fire. He had no idea if his home was OK.

“I can’t get to my house,” Randy said. “They (officials) won’t let me get to my house.”

At one point, traffic on I-8 had backed up as far as Peutz Valley Road, and vehicles were seen heading the wrong way down the eastbound off-ramp at Tavern Road.

As of 2 p.m., the California Highway Patrol shut down some eastbound Interstate 8 lanes, but those were later reopened. However, as of 3 p.m, closures remained at both Tavern Road off-ramps, as well as the off-ramp on westbound I-8 at West Willows Road.

According to the county’s Department of Public Works, road closures included:

  • Alpine Blvd between Tavern Road to West Willows road
  • Arnold Way between Tavern Road to Alpine Blvd
  • South Grade Road between Tavern Road to Alpine Blvd
  • Tavern Road at Dehesa Road intersection

Other surface road closures included South Grade Road and Highland View.

County animal control has assisted in removing a number of pets and other animals threatened by the West Fire, including cats, dogs, goats and horses. As many as 60 horses were removed from the Secret hills Ranch in Alpine, according to initial reports from county officials. Another 16 horses were rescued from a home on Alpine Boulevard.

The horses are being sent to Lakeside Rodeo Arena at 12584 Mapleview St.

Officers with the San Diego Humane Society were also scouting the area for animals, and had evacuated a kitten found near a burning home.

Alpine area residents who cannot get past fire lines to return home to rescue small pets can call the county Department of Animal Services emergency dispatcher at (619) 236-2341 and ask for a check at their home.

They should give their address and the type of animals that need help or rescuing, said agency Deputy Director Laura Ward.

Evacuated small animals will be taken to the Bonita shelter at 5821 Sweetwater Rd.

Ward asked that residents who trailer their own horses away from the fire take them places other than the rodeo grounds to leave space open there for emergency stabling.

Alpine resident Louis Russo said he saw a helicopter and airplane assisting with the air attack on the fire, and that people were releasing their animals as the fire closed in.

“This thing is not going to get stopped for awhile,” Russo said.

He said his family might evacuate — they were two miles to the west of the fire — and that his was one of the homes that lost power.

Staff writers Alex Riggins and Joshua Emerson Smith, and staff photographer Eduardo Contreras contributed to this report.


Twitter: @pdrepard


This story is being continually updated as new information is gathered.

12:10 p.m.: This story was updated. It was originally posted at 11:50 p.m.