Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Report from the California Firelines

Like much of the nation my eyes and heart have been following the story of the California wildfires. My home is not in a high-risk fire zone, but as a lifelong Californian, I know many whose homes were. I know several firefighters as well and have tried to keep in touch with them and their families during this time.

While flames threatened his own neighborhood, my friend Monte Umsted spent nearly a week on the firelines in San Diego. After he returned, Monte, an engineer for Poway Fire Department, sent me the following letter and pictures. I asked him for permission to post it here for my friends around the world to see. Click on any of the photos to enlarge the shot.


I arrived home today after spending a week assigned to the "Harris" fire, which was the first one to start. That fire was about a forty-five minute drive just to get to the area, so suffice to say it got a good head start.

To all of you who either called or e-mailed us, a big thanks for thinking of us during this rather interesting week. For those who inquired about [my wife] and the kids, while they were a bit concerned about the possible need to evacuate, fortunately they were able to stay put. Their experience wasn't all that different than the Cedar Fire that went through the southeast part of town four years ago. This time, they were better prepared to "pull the hook" in case things went sour.

The "Witch" fire (labeled after the Witch Creek area east of here where it started) made its way through north Poway, which is considered the "high rent" district, but still resulted in the loss of nearly one hundred homes. After it tore through Poway, it proceeded towards the north San Diego sub-community of Rancho Bernardo, where at least three hundred homes were lost, including the home of [my daughter's] soccer coach (and a La Mesa firefighter).

It was a bit troublesome for me, being that I was well involved on my fire, not knowing what was happening back at home, or even if I was going to have one left. In all, there were eight fires burning at one time or another in San Diego County alone.

There were a few scary moments during the first day [at the "Harris" fire], including hearing the cries for help from the fire crew that was overrun by fire, sending all four to the burn unit. My moments came when we were overrun by fire trying to keep it from jumping the road (suuuure... stop 50 mile per hour flames from jumping across a one-lane road. During the Cedar fire, a ten lane freeway wasn't even enough!); the other moment came while we were defending a house and the wind shifted 90-degrees, hammering me and my engine with fire... melted a few things, but we survived it okay.

The thing that started to really concern us had to do with the size and scope of the number of fires in the area. Every time requests for resources were made, they were siphoned off for other incidents. This not only involved the re-direction of fire engines, air tankers, helicopters, etc. but vital essentials such as food and water, too.

The morning of the third day was kind of a "okay, time out here" mentality, for we had gotten to the point where we were dividing up our remaining bottles of water, and whatever food we could scrounge between everyone's "out of county" bags. Fortunately, our strike team leader went to a small country store to get us food and water, not an easy tasks with all that was going on. That, and having only a couple of hours sleep here and there didn't help much, either.

After the first few days, things started to simmer down some, but still had flare-ups here and there. Friday night was interesting, seeing where additional help was coming from: Seattle, Washington.... New Mexico... Sedona, Arizona.... Reno, Nevada... Idaho... even a contingent of Bomberos from Tijuana! Loooong drive for some. Come to find out, my neighbor across the street was involved in coordinating helicopter operations on one part of the fire (heard ya on the radio the other day, Matt!).

But today was the best day, for it was determined that our strike team wasn't needed anymore, so we were processed out. After taking a quick lap with my crew through north Poway and spending a couple of hours cleaning the fire engine, I showered up and came home to a family that was happy to see me, some homemade cards from two little girls for their Daddy, a boy who was eager to see some of the pictures I was able to take and a wife who was glad that she could pawn off the kids to someone else! :-)

Attached are some pictures I managed to take during my "trip". One of them shows that you just never know you you might meet out on the fireline!

How about sending Monte and the firefighters of California a note of encouragement or thanks. Simply click the COMMENTS link below.


Amy Hunter said...

Thank you for the fascinating "behind the scenes" look from someone who was on the ground and fighting the fires. I'm not from California, but I was thinking of everyone there. I really appreciate the hard work and bravery of those who choose to put themselves in harm's way to keep the rest of us safe.

Idhrendur said...

My thank yous to the firefighters.

Lynn Sinclair said...

Job well done. We were cheering for you up here, in Canada.

Anonymous said...

May God richly bless you for your courage and ssacrifce. We are so proud of you and send prayers to you and your family. thank you from the bottom of our hearts. kathi Winter

Rebecca del Rio said...

Beautiful writing about ugly things. Thank you, Monte, for taking the time to bring us your experience--and thank you, dear C. for sharing it with us.

I'm glad we had several weeks of rain in No.Cal. just before this hit. Normally, we're on high alert this time of year, too. Our rain made our courageous firefighters available to our Southern neighbors. Heaven knows you've sent yours to us enough times!
Abrazos, R.

Renee Powell said...

My family and I live on the other side of the large mass of hills that separate us (the inland empire) and orange county. On friday 10/26, there was a shower of ash and the air was unhealthy to breathe. I can't imagine what it was/is like where you are. I want to thank you and all of the rest of those who have sacrificed so much to protect everyone. Sincere and heart felt thanks to you all. Renee Powell, Norco CA

Kris Blair said...

Many blessings to the firefighters of California and the families that support them. This is like going to war and you are true heros.

Scotorum (pronounce carefully) said...

This blog helps personalize the transpiring tragedies. The firefighters know they are risking their all in a Great Public Service. We should all be very grateful, as I'm sure thousands of homeowners and families out West are.

Julee Ann said...

Time and time again, public servants, risking their lives with no way for me to show appreciation.
Thank you for giving us this opportunity to say our very heartfelt thank yous. God bless you, everyone!

Laura L. Mays Hoopes said...

The firefighers are so often shown on the news as mysterious courageous people who seem almost superhuman. Thanks for giving us such an eloquent look at the reality. Thanks for everything, California needs you.
Laura Hoopes

Robin Richardson said...

OMG! Our little Monte Unsted whom used to make the fire engine siren noises better than the real thing is now making a beautiful noise for which the layman can relate. Thank you Monte for your service and in-site. Praise the Lord that your home was spared. Poway was one of my favorite little cities to visit and stay when spending time in the San Diego area.

Carolyn Burns Bass said...

Thanks to everyone who commented on this story. Last Friday I drove through San Diego and through the I-15 corridor where fire jumped from one side of the eight-lane expressway to the other. It will take several years before the land and wildlife to recover, and longer still for the families who lost homes.

Robin~ Yep, I remember Monte's fire engine siren, too. I think he sent Mom running out the front door to see where the fire was on several occasions. Good on ya, Monte.