It all started on Tuesday afternoon when we responded as part of what we call a "strike team" (five engines and a chief) to the Bernardo Fire. We spent the first night mopping up hot spots and patrolling houses in Santa Luz. Of all the places we were assigned to protect, we ended up in front of my coworker, Danielle Demko’s (Rock Church’s Director of Training and Development), sister’s place. She very graciously opened up her home to us and let us stay there and get some rest. It was quite a gift. We were grateful for God’s provision.
After we spent the night in Santa Luz, we were sent to base camp the next day. We were preparing to relocate to the highway fire near Pala when the San Marcos fire broke out. We listened anxiously to the requests for assistance on the radio. Then the call came. We were to head directly to the fire.
We arrived to find the fire was already cresting the hillside in front of us. We immediately went to work protecting structures. What happened next was a closely coordinated air and ground battle to save the homes up on Cocos Drive and Washingtonia (I have fire retardant from the air drops on my helmet to prove it). We found two homes hit hard by the fire and starting to burn. Determined not to lose them, we went to work extinguishing the fires, which had gotten into the walls. Thank God, houses that would've burned to the ground if left alone are still standing. In fact, every house we committed to that night was saved. Many firefighters had similar experiences that night. We weren't the only ones.
The fire approached sounding like a freight train. At one point, we couldn't see at all and were choking because of the smoke from the passing fire front.
The next morning, with outside temperatures climbing to 90 degrees and winds reaching 30 MPH, the fire was moving away from us down the hill toward Cal State San Marcos. Looking at the wind direction and fire behavior, we thought we were okay for the time being, unless the wind changed and the fire jumped a control line. We knew where it would go if it did, so we prepared for that possibility, as remote as it may have been. However, at 11:30AM, the fire did just that—it jumped the control line and headed for the houses below us. We went to assist three engines already positioned there and as we did, we looked at the houses that would be affected. Our hearts sank when we saw one house overgrown with thick trees and vegetation that nearly touched it. If those trees caught on fire—which they almost certainly would, the house would be indefensible—and the fire front was rapidly approaching. We saw that there were two other homes on either side and one across the street that we could save. The fire approached sounding like a freight train. At one point, we couldn't see at all and were choking because of the smoke from the passing fire front.
Once the fire passed, we decided we were going to save that house even though it looked like we didn’t stand a chance. Checking for hidden fire in the houses and extinguishing the exteriors was a constant battle. We didn't totally give up on the house, but in the end, the dense vegetation brought too much fire against it and we lost it. We did manage to keep the fire from burning the other three, but this job is about fighting fire—and winning—and none of us likes to see a house burn, even though we didn't have the resources to safely attack the fire.
Mentally and physically exhausted after 24 straight hours of fighting the fires, we spent the next few hours mopping up around the homes making sure no stray sparks would reignite what homes we are able to save. We were finally relieved on the fire line. Until that moment, the only rest we had was what we had gotten the previous night when the crew got a few short hours of sleep on the ground, in the street, or on a driveway.
We arrived at base camp around 9PM. We were tired but appreciative of all the support and prayers lifted up. I knew that whatever we got into, God was with us. I felt His presence and peace in the midst of the raging storm.