A WEEK ON THE LINE
DURING THE 2003 WILDFIRE SEASON
by Chief Leo Chaloux
Mosquito Volunteer Fire Department, El Dorado County, near Placerville, California

{After human activity, nothing affects the plants and animals of the Sierra Nevada Foothills more than the extremely hot, dry summers, and the fires attending those seasons. Chief Leo's account helps us understand the nature of those fires.}

On Friday October 24th at 1:30 P.M. I received a phone call from Bruce Lacher Chief of El Dorado County Fire and one of the Office of Emergency Services coordinators for the County. Since it was our turn to go on an out of the county strike team he asked me to put together a team of fire fighters and prepare an engine to go to southern California for a fire assignment. He asked that we be ready to go as far south as the Mexican border and be ready to be gone for at least a week.

See photos taken during this trip here.

At the beginning of each fire season I ask the volunteer fire fighters, “Who would like to go out on a strike team?” For those who sign up to go they have to realize that they can be called at any time, to go anywhere in the western United States and be gone for several undetermined days. Once they make the commitment to go they also have to know they are one of three fire fighters on one of five engines that are controlled by a strike team leader and that all of us work at the will of the state for as long as we are needed.

For these strike team assignments Devery and I take turns going and this happened to be my turn. I then try to get one of the Officers or a fire fighter with a Class B driver’s license to go along and then a fire fighter to fill in the third position. I called Captain Chris Johns and asked if he wanted to go to southern California since it was his turn. He jumped at the opportunity. I also called Fire Fighter Curtis Schleth to see if he could go along. There was no hesitation and this would be his first strike team assignment.

We had some time to get a pack ready, sleeping bags, some food and other things we may need to be gone for a while. I heard nothing until Saturday at 14:15 hours when our pagers went off for an immediate need strike team assignment to Yucaipa in Southern California. This was strange; as I have never experienced an immediate need assignment to somewhere as far as Southern California. Normally an immediate need is to an assignment within the county or one of the surrounding counties and means we are suppose to be out of the door ready to fight fire within 3 minutes. Well we were able to be out of here within 10 minutes and found ourselves reporting to Station 85 in El Dorado Hills to join up with one engine from Diamond Springs Fire, one from El Dorado County Fire, one from Rescue Fire and one from El Dorado Hills Fire. Along with us we had a strike team leader from Diamond Springs Fire, and an assistant from El Dorado County Fire.

After a safety briefing and equipment check we left Station 85 and headed down Highway 50 to Interstate 5 for the trip to Yucaipa. Now, I didn’t know nor even care where this place called Yucaipa was. I just knew we were the last engine in a strike team of five and all we had to do was follow the leader. Engines in a strike team are placed in position based on their horsepower and actual speed. In our case we had the most horsepower along with the greatest speed so we were placed at the rear of the line while the El Dorado County engine was placed at the beginning of the line.

While on the way down our orders were changed from Yucaipa to San Bernardino. We never did make it to Yucaipa and I still do not know where it is. We arrived in San Bernardino at 0200 hours on the 26th after more than 10 hours of driving with stops only for fuel and food. Once in San Bernardino we were sent to a small park located at Waterman Avenue and 40th Street and told to stage until the morning to get our assignment. We were the only strike team of engines in this park but there were ambulances and cop cars all over the place. The wind was blowing real strong and it was hard to sleep in a park that had night-lights on all over the place and traffic everywhere. After all we are just a bunch of ole country boys who are not afraid to sleep in the dark and not use to seeing cars after midnight.

At 0600 hours we awoke for breakfast, which we mooched off the cops. After equipment inspections and a safety briefing we were assigned to the “Old Fire” and given orders to respond to Division B to do structure protection. We left Waterman Avenue and headed north on Interstate 215, which was a weird process as the interstate was completely empty except for our five-engine strike team. At one point we had to come to a complete stop as fire and smoke raced across the interstate blocking all visibility forcing us to wait for it all to pass. Once we were able to see we continued on to Division B, which was a little town called Devour. Our assignment was to do structure protection on a road called Knoll Street. Now, I did not like the name of this street as it turned out Knoll Street was really just that, a knoll with brush and heavy vegetation on all four sides and only one way in and thus only one way out. Not really the best of environments to be setting up in when you have to take into consideration the winds were blowing around 50 mph and a fire was coming our direction.

Each engine was assigned a house to protect. We were given orders to run out one 100 foot hose line to the back of the house, not to hook up to a hydrant, only protect one house and be prepared to cut and run if there was too much fire. Knoll Street consisted of about 15 homes made of plaster walls and tile roofs. There were large pines on both sides of the road, ornamental landscaping around all the homes and about 30 feet separating each house with a chain link fence between each one.

We backed into the driveway of the house we were given to protect and found a man packing his car. We asked if he needed any help and the poor guy was kind of running in circles trying to figure out what was really important to take, as this was his mother’s house. He let us into the house so we could close all windows and drapes and lock all the doors. We then walked around the house removing anything combustible from the house. As the man left he looked at each of us and in a very concerned manner asked us to be careful and not to get hurt.

Once we had prepared the house to make it as fire resistant as possible I walked around the neighborhood to assess the fuel loads, topography and what could be expected from this encroaching fire. As I got the lay of the land I became concerned at the steepness of the sides of this knoll, the amount of heavy fuels, and I felt that this fire would ultimately come up behind us.

Across the street from our house was one being protected by El Dorado Hills Fire. From the backyard of that house we were able to look to the east into the mountain range and watch the fire as the wind was blowing it down hill towards us. Below us were about 40 homes that were in the direct path of this oncoming fire. What really did catch our attention more than anything else was this horse corral that had about 20 horses in it. Because of the fire, smoke and high winds the poor horses were running frantically in circles around the corral. As time went on and the winds increased the fire grew closer to the horses. We found ourselves being more concerned about them than anything else. However, there was nothing we could do as our assignment was structure protection on Knoll Street.

I was not expecting any aircraft to be fighting on this fire as the winds were now blowing steady at 50 mph and gusting to over 60. (We had our little high tech wind gauges out). Just as the fire was within a couple hundred feet of the horses a bright orange Sky crane helicopter came over the hill. With the turbines running at full speed the helicopter flew down towards the corral below us and dropped 3000 gallons of black water between the horses and the fire. At this point those horses were going absolutely crazy as this helicopter flew over less than 50 feet above them. I have seen fire fighting aircraft drop clear water, and red water but I have never seen one drop black water.

This helicopter after dropping its water near the horses made a turn and flew back over us. We could watch the struggle the pilot was going through trying to keep this thing in the air. In a few minutes it returned and once again dropped into the canyon below us releasing water on houses that were directly threatened. The skill and courage of this pilot intrigued us as we saw him drop a partial load of black water, spin his craft around and standing it on its nose fall back toward the fire strategically dropping the remainder of his load. As we watched him do things this aircraft was not designed to do the fire continued to advance. Yet he continued, at some points we knew he was taking the machine to the ground but at the last moment he would pull it up with the turbines roaring even louder than the fire below us. Suddenly, a second sky crane helicopter showed up and he too was dropping black water on the fire and then a third carrying a small bucket under it arrived and joined in the fight. I later learned the water being dropped was coming from a wastewater treatment plant.  It was the closest water source.

We had a ringside seat as we watched the fire crews with their engines and the helicopters battle on with the fire. We saw great efforts by the fire crews going into defending the homes below. Some were successful and some had to abandon the driveways leaving behind their hose lines and burning homes as they retreated to safety zones. The fire continued advancing towards our knoll paying no attention to the efforts that were going into trying to contain it. Then  the wind grew in intensity at one point making it hard work to stand, almost rolling me over as gusts now brought the fire to the base of the knoll.

Chris, Curtis and I returned to our engine to prepare for the fire that we now knew was coming our way. As we prepared our engine I noticed flames 100 feet high soaring over the top of the house being protected by the El Dorado Hills engine. I saw those fire fighters retreat toward the front of the house, trying to put the house between them and the fire. When the heat lessened they returned to the fire to continue the fight. I looked eastward up Knoll Street and saw fire coming, strolling down the road; its texture was that of water being released as in a torrent from a collapsed dam. I turned to the west and saw the Rescue engine with flames producing fire tornadoes advancing up the knoll. The two Rescue fire fighters stood as soldiers, the nozzles were their weapons and the fire the enemy.

Suddenly, the wind increased to a severe gust forcing me to turn my back to it and kneel to the ground. As I saw Curtis who was less than 10 feet from me also turn his back to the wind the heat became very intense and everything went black. I could no longer see Curtis or our engine. I have never seen this before but this was the experience of a firestorm. The high winds developed by the Santa Anna and now pushed faster by the fire itself was blowing all the smoke and hot gasses the fire could produce towards us.

With the blackness came the wind, the heat and the sound.  The wind in the midst of this blackness was frightening; it was defiant daring me to stand up to it. I had never experienced such a wind, it challenged me to stand and as I did my mind keep ordering my body to lay onto the ground. My mind defended its logic by saying that it was a 100-mile per hour gust. I compromised to the wind, with my back to it I went to my knees and paused there hoping and telling myself that this must pass. Then the heat came, it tested my protective equipment.  I hoped the yellow stuff, this Nomex treated cotton I was wearing would do what the manufacture said it could do. As the wind tugged at my helmet I pulled it tight and checked to see if the neck drape was down.  I placed my hands over my face and for the first time I told myself that now I was going to get burned. Then there was the sound. The sound of the wind impressed me but the sound of the fire terrified me. It started from the ground and roared skyward in a rolling tone that I have heard before but never at this amplitude. My mind looked for comparisons, there was the freight train, or that of a jet plane taking off or even the possibility of a tornado but this was greater than that, it was the sound of a million fire places above me, below me and all around me. I shall not forget that sound.

Suddenly it passed. The blackness flew past us carrying with it the wind, the heat and that sound. I once again saw Curtis; his back still to me and appearing in front of him was Engine 75, our engine with Chris standing at the panel. Curtis turned and looked at me as I started walking toward him, the bewilderment on his face was asking me what do we do now. I looked down the road and saw spot fires around the house Curtis and I had just checked out a few minutes before. This house was not ours, we were ordered to protect the one where our engine was but that house even though it would be threatened soon did not have fire at its walls. As I got next to Curtis I told him to go to Chris and get some more hose, we were going to try and save the house being immediately threatened. As I did so I remembered the orders we were given, do only one house with only one hose line and do not hook to a hydrant. We were breaking the orders but I could not see us standing by and letting this house go up.

Quickly we gathered three one hundred foot sections of hose along with a nozzle, As Chris set the hose to the engine panel Curtis and I pulled the hose to the south side of the house. Just as we got there the fire was within five feet of the house. All vegetation around was on fire. I noticed two woodpiles that were burning, some stairs leading to the house were also on fire and some Oleanders and other ornamentals were burning. In my thoughts my mind commented on the Oleanders, “the darn things are toxic when they are burning so don’t breath the smoke.”  I laughed at this comment, there was smoke everywhere no way could I tell Oleander smoke from all the smoke. Curtis manned the nozzle and started blasting at the fire as I helped him pull the hose towards the heat that was the greatest threat to ourselves and the house. There was so much fire and so much heat that as soon as water was taken off something burning it would flare up again. I was surprised at how little effect the water had. At times the water would leave the nozzle, go out a few feet and be blown back into our faces. The stinking stairs kept burning, no matter how many times we would put then out they would re-ignite. I knew we would have to take them apart but there just was not enough time. There was too much fire. I asked Curtis to stay in place and take care of himself as I ran back to the engine. Chris had hooked a hose to the hydrant and had water going out on the original line to the first house. Another order broken but Chris was not going to run on tank water when he saw that Curtis and I were way out on a hose line. I climbed up onto the engine and handed down a five-gallon container of foam to Chris and asked him to start supplying us with foam. In short time he had it coming our way.

I went back to Curtis and once again we started advancing on the fire, this time with more water and foam. I was surprised again; the foam was not that effective. Again we would place water and foam on a fire, it would go out and as soon as the nozzle went somewhere else it would re-ignite. The darn stairs were once again burning. All during this time the wind continued to blow, at least 50 to 60 miles per hour and it carried the heat and fire towards us. We just had too much fire, at times Curtis and I would pull our hose back to the house and stand around a corner waiting for the heat to pass us and hopefully back down.  Then we would advance again onto the fire just to watch that what ever could burn go out and then re-ignite. The smoke was killing us, especially me, my eyes were watering and burning and I tried many times placing a handkerchief over my mouth to filter the smoke. Again my mind commented, “When I get out of here I am going to check out those new Wildland respirators.”

We were losing this fight, there was more fire than our little hose putting out 125 gallons per minute could handle. We simply could not keep those stinking stairs from burning. Suddenly I heard the whine of a jet turbine, I flashed back to a sound I heard 30 years ago in Southeast Asia, that scream of a  LH 57 gun ship coming in to support a fire fight. Over the ridge pulled up the orange sky crane, the same one that we had seen earlier. He should not be flying, the winds were blowing too hard but there he was rising up slowly and moving over towards Curtis and me. He hovered above us about 20 feet high, we looked up and saw the bottom of his tank and the rotation of the props with the white tips identifying the ends. I grabbed Curtis and pulled him back to the wall of the house. We were under the eaves when he opened the tank and black water poured out, two thousand gallons of it. Thank God for this helicopter, the guy flying it and the wastewater treatment plant. Off he flew leaving the fire out, except for the stairs.

The helicopter had greatly calmed things down but Curtis and I had to keep after the fire, applying water and foam. Finally, it looked as though we may have started to do some good with this fire. The stairs were still burning but at this point I didn’t care. I told Curtis to stay in place, put out any hot spots, and take care of himself as I wanted to walk around the house to make sure the thing was not on fire anywhere else. As I walked around to the front of the house the smoke was still choking me, I could not breath, I just wanted to take a deep breath. I stood in a small alcove that had a wood lathe roof over it. Before the fire I had placed a lawn sprinkler attached to a garden hose on top of this roof and turned it on. In this alcove water was dripping down making everything moist and the smoke just a little more tolerable. While standing there I looked down and saw two large rats, they were wet and all beat up. They simply looked up at me waiting for me to stomp on them, I don’t really think they cared at that point. Again my mind commented, “it’s okay guys, we are in this together.”  I left to finish the walk around the house and get back to Curtis.

While doing the walk around I was grateful to see that the stucco walls, boxed in soffits and covered gable vents this house had actually did their job as the house was still there. With all that heat and fire it was still standing. As I approached Curtis he and I both started laughing. He at my red, running eyes and me at his. We looked like those two rats I had just seen, all beat up like. The stairs were still burning so I was getting ready to go back to the engine to get an ax. I was going to take those suckers apart and bury them if I had to. As I turned I looked up on to the roof and it was on fire. This house had a clay tile roof and it was burning. The flames were coming out from under the tile, they were about one foot high and covered about six feet of the ridge. After all this work, all the foam, all the water, the helicopter, the black water, and now the roof was on fire. I was not going to let this home burn.

As I looked onto the roof I saw the fire coming up from under the tile, the length of its flame was about a foot high, it moved slowly upward from the ridge. Tile is not supposed to burn yet here was this fire gently rolling out from under the gray material. I turned the nozzle towards the roof and poured out the water and foam solution draping it over the flame. It went out so easily, my faith in the foam was restored.

Again the stairs were on fire and this time Curtis and I were going to cut them up with an ax and wash them down and away. While doing this I looked back to the roof and there it was, a flame rising out from under the tile and this time extending about six feet up the ridge of the roof. Damn foam, I thought as I turned and again dropped foam onto the roof, right on top of the flame knocking it down and out. I turned the nozzle back to the stairs and burning landscaping around the house. The intensity was not as great since the helicopter drop had taken a lot of heat out of the area. I gave the nozzle to Curtis and as he worked the area over with the nozzle I walked to the back of the house and looked over the edge at the source of all the heat we were dealing with. The fuel was now almost all gone, it had burned away and the threat to the house was not as great, this fire was burning it self out. As I walked back toward Curtis I looked up to the roof and it was again on fire.

The fire was under the tile and in the sub roof and no matter how much water and foam we put on it there was no way it was going out. I walked over to our engine to see how Chris was doing. He was on a hose lay at the back of another house protecting it from any fire that may be a threat. I looked across the street and saw two of the El Dorado Hills fire fighters sitting on the front bumper of their engine. The fire had already burned through their area and they were catching up with a little rest and drinking a lot of water.

I walked over to them, they were so young they made me feel old and I realized to them I probably was. I asked them for their help, I told them the house we had been protecting now had a roof fire and it was more than Curtis and I could handle. They were tired and with dirty faces they looked up at me and quickly a smile came across their faces. Off they went running and opening compartments on their engine gathering brush hooks, axes and a chain saw. I returned to our engine and got an attic hook.

We ran back to the house with the burning roof. Curtis was still in back cooling down what brush was still burning. One of the El Dorado Hills fire fighters used the property owner’s ladder to get onto the roof. She began hitting the roof with an axe pulling off the thick tiles to get to the sub roof. The other fire fighter and I along with Curtis pulling the hose went to the front door.  Quickly an ax had the door opened and in we went, pulling in the hose with the dripping nozzle. I first noticed the thick, high pile, white carpet. It was so clean, exactly opposite of what we were all in our dirty yellow turnouts and dirty boots.   That hose being dragged through the house to the back bedroom where the fire was left distinct black marks telling everyone where we were in this house. Once at the back of the house where the roof fire was we started pulling the sheet rock off the ceiling. There above us was the sub roof, in flame and starting to grow in intensity. A quick use of the nozzle sprayed water and foam up on to the sub roof and the fire was out. It was so easy and now it was out for good. The roof was damaged, the ceiling was torn down and the carpet was dirty but the house was still here.

We pulled our hose and tools out side and went back to where the stairs were. They were again burning but this time we took the axes and chain saw and cut those stinking stairs into small pieces. We applied water and foam onto the remains and they were out. Now, the fire and heat was quickly lying down. This fire was going out. I once again walked around the house looking into gable vents and up on to the roof. As I walked around to where the alcove was I still saw the water dripping down from the garden nozzle I had put up there. The two rats were still there and as I walked past them they made no movements.

As things calmed down we were able to take a break, a chance to sit down, drink some water, check our selves out and do a little laughing and war story telling. After a few hours we were able to get all our hoses, tools and ourselves back together and onto the engine. Another strike team was relieving us so that we could go back to the airport in San Bernardino and get some fuel, food, and rest.

This was but the first day of our strike team assignment. During the next six days we were sent to the town of Running Springs, then to the Rim of the World High School, and back to Running Springs. We were given assignments of preparing houses for protection, prepping the side of roads, supporting firing out operations and standing by at homes to protect them. On the way back to El Dorado County the strike team once again drove into the town of Devour to Knoll Street to see the houses we had protected. They were still there. The house we had worked so hard on was still standing, plastic was covering the roof were we had cut it off but the house was there. We had some ownership here and were pleased when we saw this older lady come out to talk to us. She thanked us for saving her house and she stated she was grateful none of us were hurt. As she left she very factually stated, “this is the third time this has happened.”  My thoughts were, well I guess there will be some fire fighters back again in the near future.

This assignment started as a request from the Office of Emergency Services not only for our engine and three fire fighters but also for an estimated 3000 pieces of equipment and 15,000 other fire fighters. I was fortunate enough to go down south with our new engine that performed flawlessly and with Chris Johns and Curtis Schelth. Chris worked professionally and tirelessly doing all the driving and engineering never leaving us empty on the end of a hose line. Curtis worked with me never doubting a command and supported me completely doing what ever had to be done. It was my privilege to be with these two fire fighters. Besides once they got started telling jokes I would end up laughing so much my ribs would hurt.

With all that happened during that week in October we have to remember that many fire fighters, police officers, commanders, suppliers and civilians worked very hard to save lives and property. We also have to remember that one fire fighter did die and by grace no others did.