When Bill Metcalf, chief of North County Fire, called the firestorms that threatened Fallbrook last week “worse than 2007,” it was apparent he had a grim story to tell.
Metcalf, who has overseen local firefighting efforts in three critical times for Fallbrook – 2003, 2007, and now, 2014, detailed the experience.
“Last week we didn’t have the sheer acreage that burned in 2007, but having nine simultaneous events going on at once made it worse than 2007,” said Metcalf. “It was a challenge sending resources to help at other locations, while keeping enough to protect what’s at home. In a normal fire situation, with all of our North County resources, we can usually overwhelm a fire pretty quickly.”
Metcalf said a separate problem also created a negative impact on firefighting efforts in regards to the Tomahawk Fire, which was burning along Fallbrook’s western boundary.
“People were blocking our access to the fire area out of their desire to watch the fire; they interfered with our ability to get resources in to protect the [Fallbrook] line,” said Metcalf. “Every road we tried to go up, to assess the situation, was choked with bystanders; people were parking their cars and blocking access for the fire engines.”
At Fallbrook Airpark, where the fire was burning nearby, Metcalf said the situation was also discouraging.
“It was hard for us to get into the airpark because of the people that were parked there watching the fire,” he said. “Folks need to understand that they are blocking emergency crews when they do that.”
“I don’t think the average person understands what danger they are in when they do that stuff,” said Metcalf. “When we ask people to leave and keep roads open, it’s because we are seriously concerned for their safety and the safety of our community. When their actions affect the ability for us to do our job, it’s pretty selfish.”
Sheriff’s Lt. Art Wager, the new commander of the Fallbrook substation, affirmed Metcalf’s concerns, but addressed the problem it can create with evacuations.
“We did not have any problems getting folks evacuated out of the Olive Hill area [during the Tomahawk Fire], but when an emergency is occurring, we ask the public to please not go to the area involved,” said Wager. “That causes issues with crowd control. People who are trying to enter the area to look around become mixed up with evacuee traffic and it worsens the situation.”
Both North County Fire and the Fallbrook Sheriff’s substation had personnel loaned out through its mutual aid agreement to other fire incidents in North County at the time the threat escalated in Fallbrook.
When the Bernardo Fire started Tues., May 13, North County Fire was requested to provide the state fire engine that is hosted in Fallbrook. “That’s the yellow fire engine we have; it is actually owned by the State Office of Emergency Services,” explained Metcalf. “We had to send that out with a crew.”
After keeping track of the Bernardo situation overnight, Metcalf said Wednesday morning, May 14 brought a call of a structure fire near Reche Road and Tecalote.
“We sent a bunch of resources out there, but couldn’t find any fire,” said Metcalf. “When we turned around, we saw smoke coming from the Naval Weapons Station, which would become the Tomahawk Fire.”
Metcalf said he immediately directed staff to assess the western boundary of Fallbrook, near the town center.
“I sent engines to the end of Fallbrook Street, Alvarado, and College – all the areas that had fences to the Naval Weapons Station,” he said.
Metcalf said at the time, a 30 mph wind was blowing from east to west. “The immediate threat was going away from us.”
“We were concerned, but the fire was moving away – we were just wanting to make sure it didn’t back down into western Fallbrook,” he said.
Meanwhile, dispatch information came to Metcalf in regards to the Highway Fire at West Lilac Road and Old Highway 395 which was moving toward the Rancho Monserate senior mobile home community.
“We knew from the initial reports that this was going to be a major fire,” said Metcalf. At the time, some North County Fire personnel were away at training sessions and the agency had also loaned an engine company to the Carlsbad (Poinsettia) Fire at the request of the mutual aid command.
“We immediately called all personnel back from training,” said Metcalf, who explained that problems developed minute by minute.
“I thought I had one problem solved and then I would turn around and there was another [smoke] column in the sky, it was just one after another after another,” he said. “Everything started within the space of a couple of hours on Wednesday. When our mutual aid system has time to gear up, we have a lot of resources, but it is sheer logistics, it takes time for help to arrive.”
“At that point in the Highway Fire, all of the normal help we would get here on fires was committed; it wasn’t available,” said Metcalf. “Our resources got stretched really thin before the Calvary arrived.”
Sgt. Patrick Yates of the Fallbrook Sheriff’s substation said changing priorities was the order of business for his agency as well.
“The Highway Fire was blowing toward a very populated area (Lake Rancho Viejo) and the Tomahawk Fire was going toward the heart of Fallbrook,” said Yates. “The worst thing was trying to decide how to effectively manage assets between the two.” The substation had some units on loan to San Marcos to help with the raging Cocos Fire.
“Our assets were depleted because of all the fires occurring at the same time in North County,” said Yates. Law enforcement had a command post set up at the Park n Ride near Interstate 15 and SR76.
“Then more assets began coming in; at one time we only had three or four deputies, soon after we had more help from Vista, Valley Center, Escondido, and the CHP,” he said.
Yates said it was thought that Rancho Monserate mobile home park would have to be evacuated, but it was eventually ordered as a “shelter in place.”
When the Highway Fire jumped Interstate 15, a new concern presented itself – the threat to the large Rancho Viejo housing development.
“If the winds hadn’t died down Wednesday at 6:30 p.m., we would have had homes and apartments burned in Fallbrook; it could have been catastrophic,” he said.
Firefighters eventually drove the Highway Fire around homes and the Rancho Monserate mobile home community. “I was never so relieved to see where this fire was going – into the planted tomato fields above Vessels Ranch” said Metcalf.
Then more wind came into play.
“I saw the smoke shift on the Naval Weapons Station as an onshore wind kicked in,” said Metcalf. “That was the first time that the Tomahawk Fire made a run back into Fallbrook; it came back into the area south of Ammunition Road by the sewer treatment plant and a trailer park.
Metcalf said he once again repositioned resources and formed a structure protection group with the assistance of the naval weapons station.
“We did the first evacuation advisories; up to that we hadn’t done any earlier in the Tomahawk Fire, then the wind died down,” he said. “The fire burned right to fence, but never came across, but we were ready.”
Through Wednesday night, Metcalf said they continued to work on the Highway Fire in the southeastern part of the community and protected the western perimeter of town from the Tomahawk.
“At this point we did a general recall, we had all units and staff back, all reserve engines, including people with pick up trucks, shovels, and rakes,” he said. “Everything that had wheels on it was staffed.”
Resources began coming in from other areas to help with the Highway Fire, Metcalf said. “In addition to a strike team and helicopter from Orange County, engines from Riverside, San Bernardino, and Northern California came to help with the Highway Fire.” As that assistance arrived, some resources were moved to help with the Cocos Fire in San Marcos.
On Thursday afternoon, a spot fire from the Tomahawk began a fresh charge at Fallbrook, which resulted in an evacuation order for Olive Hill Road from South Mission to Ladera Vista.
“We were in position to try and catch it at any point it tried to come across the Fallbrook border,” said Metcalf. “The fire did get off the base and into Color Spot Nursery. The nursery workers opened all the gates and helped our crews locate all the hydrants. We were able to stop the fire when it came across the perimeter in half a dozen places.” By 7:30 p.m., the threat had been reduced and the evacuation order lifted.
Metcalf said during this time he met Sheriff’s Lt. Wager.
“[The Sheriff’s substation] was also stretched thin because deputies had been dispatched to help with the Cocos Fire, but he got a lot of officers up here at staged them at River Village in case more evacuations had to take place. He did a great job getting resources in place.”
Wager effectively secured a platoon of 40 law enforcement officers comprised of members of the Chula Vista Police Dept., National City Police Dept., Imperial Beach Sheriff’s station, and San Diego City Schools police to assist in Fallbrook.
“When a major incident goes down, there is a composite platoon that comes together that responds to the affected area,” said Wager. “We staged them at South Mission Road and 76; they stood by to be deployed as needed.”
As Thursday rolled into Friday, Metcalf said the weather change worked to the firefighters’ advantage.
“Friday morning was 10 to 15 degrees cooler and the wind had died down,” he said. “We had been under siege since Tuesday and we were dealing with exhaustion, trying to keep our people safe.”
The fact that these firestorms occurred in May was cause for serious reflection, Metcalf said.
“This is normally what we see in September and October,” said Metcalf. “The fire behavior we saw was extreme and dangerous. There was long-range spotting going on with embers being thrown miles ahead of the firefront. We had fire whirls (or fire tornados as some call them). “
“This is an indicator of what we might see this summer,” he said. “The winds are always the question.”
Both Metcalf and Wager said improved training and better mutual aid arrangements benefited both agencies in fighting the fires here.
“Since 2007, the Sheriff’s Dept. has done more intensive training regarding how we can work together better with mutual aid; it has been tremendously helpful,” said Wager. “The fruits of that training really became apparent during these fires.”
Metcalf agreed that mutual assistance has been key to ensuring better coverage during fire emergencies. “It’s amazing how it all worked out, thanks to the mutual aid from all the agencies – throughout California.”
He also wanted to share a final message with local residents.
“Many people seem to wait for instructions as to whether to evacuate or not, my advice is that if you feel nervous, evacuate,” said Metcalf. “We do notifications as soon as we believe there is a threat, but if people are nervous they should just leave.”
To register a phone for potential future evacuation notices, visit www.readysandiego.org.