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.
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! :-)