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La Jolla firefighters share tales from the front lines

Though the flames of last week’s devastating wildfires never reached La Jolla, our local firefighters could not have been more involved.

Firefighters from all three of La Jolla’s stations were called to the front lines and returned with tales of towering flames and howling winds, homes saved and homes lost, injured comrades and the very real possibility that the flames could actually have reached the Jewel.

Firefighters from Fire Station 13 on Nautilus Street, Station 16 atop Mount Soledad and Station 9 on Ardath Road were all called to strike teams to fight the wildfires by the early-morning hours of Monday, Oct. 22. Our local firefighters were working to save structures in Rancho Bernardo, the area of San Diego that suffered some of the heaviest losses in homes and property.

As they worked to save what homes they could and watched in sadness as hundreds of homes burned down, the Fire Department only had enough extra personnel to backfill Station 9, meaning that Stations 13 and 16 were empty from Monday until Thursday.

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The four-person crew from Fire Station 13 on Nautilus Street arrived for their normal shift at 8 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 21, as the flames from the Witch fire were already making their way toward San Diego.

“They gave us a little notice, and said the fire was going to hit San Diego by 5 in the morning,” said Captain Bob Bilz. “Well, they were off by four hours - they didn’t know how fast the wind was blowing. They called at 1 a.m. to wake us up, but we had been watching the news so intently that we were still up anyway.”

Bilz, along with engineer Bill Nelson and firefighters Karen Carnahan and Mike Cates, set out initially to a neighborhood near San Pasqual Valley, north of Rancho Bernardo.

They joined four other engines in a strike team, then each engine picked a single home to protect. Bilz said Station 13’s crew and the engine next to them were successful in protecting their assigned homes, but three other engines were not. Nearby, another entire five-engine strike team was forced to abandon their positions because the fire overran them.

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In the chaos of those early hours, the crew was forced to pick its battles, choosing homes that could be defended and conceding others to the fire.

“Some people still have shake-shingle roofs and trees growing right up on the house,” Cates said. “If they’re on fire, you might as well protect the guy next door who still has a chance.”

Bilz said his crew chose its first house to defend because it had a large concrete area surrounding it. It turned out the home belonged to an antique car restorer, and several priceless automobiles were saved by their efforts.

At that point, the crew was using only the water in its tank - mobility was at a premium in the face of the fast-moving blaze, which made the crew hesitant to unfurl its hoses and attach to a fire hydrant. The crew at times would put garden hoses from the homes they were defending into their tank to replenish their water supplies.

“We even used the guy’s drinking water - we were dumping his big five-gallon bottles into our tank,” Bilz said.

The crew made its way down from the hilltop neighborhood, using what Bilz called a “bump-and-run” technique to save what houses they could along the way. In the meantime, his home in Crest and Carnahan’s home in Encinitas were being voluntarily evacuated, and the crew was unable to get updates on their own homes. They also had their minds on the community they left behind in La Jolla.

“There was a truck at Station 9 and the next closest one was in Mira Mesa,” Bilz said.

What’s really scary is that with those winds, you could have had a house fire here or in PB, and if houses are close together, you’d have all these houses on fire.”

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The Fire Station 13 crew worked for 29 hours straight before receiving a three-hour break, which they spent sleeping on the asphalt in a shopping center parking lot near their command center.

The crew from Fire Station 16 atop Mount Soledad was dispatched by 4 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 22. Captain Robert Lang, engineer Alma Lowry and firefighters Tim Parker and Jason Deneau were sent to a cul-de-sac in Rancho Bernardo that Lang said “felt like the epicenter.”

“It was active - walls of fire coming down on houses, just rolling from one house to another, a full-on firestorm,” Lang said.

His crew was also picking their battles. Parker estimated that for every three homes on the block, only one was salvageable.

“Instinctively, as firefighters, you want to put out houses that are on fire,” Lang said. “But in this case, it was triage - you have to sort them out, decide which ones can be saved, and we saved a lot. And we had to watch a lot burn.”

The Station 16 crew battled flames on the front line for 12 straight hours. They were assigned, along with two other engines and a helicopter, to defend a 500-person retirement home that could not be evacuated in time. Lowry was hospitalized after getting a piece of metal shrapnel in her eye.

Lang’s thoughts also turned to La Jolla. He has two young children who live in Bird Rock and he believed it was possible the fierce winds could push the fire there.

“I was just thinking, I hope mom has a plan,” he said. “Even as far west as that is, in my opinion, with San Clemente Canyon going right up and over Mount Soledad, and the Muirlands, there’s a lot of fire potential up here. The Cedar fire stopped just as it was getting into San Clemente Canyon off the 52 - it would go right to the ocean.”

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Parker was also concerned about the canyon as a fast track for fire to the coast.

“It’s never burned, so if it did, it would go off like a bomb,” he said.

Several of our local firefighters also were on the scene for the Cedar fire in 2003, and agreed that the most recent fire was as intense, if not more. Parker said the key difference this time was improved communication and evacuation. He recalls arguing with citizens in 2003, trying to get them to evacuate, and said he faced no such problems this time.

“The streets were empty, and that meant we had room to operate,” Lang said. “That was huge.”