Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2007 | With a tornado of fire and ash spiraling up from the hillside a few feet away, a mustachioed firefighter gave a warning to a yellow-jacketed, ash-covered colleague standing nearby.

“It’s going to get pretty hot here for us,” the fireman said.

As he spoke, a swirling hell of smoke and ash alighted from the brush, and the Harris Fire roared. Debris rained down across Honey Springs Road east of Jamul and the men returned to their task: Trying to tame an inferno that had marched uncontrolled across 22,000 acres of East County, killing one person and injuring 21.

For many firefighters at Mile Marker 14, the day was never-ending. Sunday blurred into Monday, and even as fire crews raced from as far away as Oregon, local firefighters had no expectations of their day-long shifts ending. They were stretched thin, and the flames were winning.

Late Monday afternoon, with the blood-orange sun sinking behind a tidal wave of smoke that could be seen for miles, Capt. Gehrig Browning, a 41-year-old San Miguel firefighter, jammed a shovel in the gravel road shoulder, leaned against a fire engine’s bumper and caught his breath.

Sage-smelling smoke streamed down from charred hillsides around him. To the east and south, vortexes of flame chewed up shrubs, fomenting a tower of smoke that cast a pallid glow over downtown San Diego, 25 miles to the west.

Browning had worked 28 consecutive hours. His slate-blue eyes were bloodshot, soot covered his goggles, black streaks of sweat trailed down his face. His thoughts were with his family.

Late Sunday, Browning heard reports that fire threatened Ramona, where he’d left his wife and children earlier Sunday. He spent the night wondering and worrying whether they’d gotten out. He talked to his wife at 10 a.m. She and the children were safe. But no one knew whether their home escaped the rush of flames.

He and his colleagues had survived a hellacious night close to the U.S.-Mexico border in Barrett Junction, where they’d been defending a mobile home park and a winery.

After darkness set in, the scene was “insane,” concluded Jeff Hofmann, a 42-year-old San Miguel engineer firefighter. The fire had surrounded them. Dozens of propane tanks exploded, freight trains of noise with a “blow torch of flames,” Hofmann said.

Sunday night, “the wind picks up, the glow starts and the sound — crazy,” Hofmann said.

Winds were erratic through Sunday night and into Monday. Don Shellhammer, a Vista Fire battalion chief, had checked the wind when it wasn’t blowing hard. He clocked it at 25 mph.

“The fire was one of the most intense ones I’ve been on,” Shellhammer said, repeating a point several firefighters reiterated.

Shellhammer said his crews had been overmatched. “A lot of structures, very few resources,” he said.

To understand the scope of the East County fire, which began about 20 miles southeast near Tecate, understand that Shellhammer and his five-engine strike force were fighting just one of the hundreds of battles across the region. Though firefighters were summoned from throughout the state, they didn’t begin arriving in Jamul until Monday afternoon.

A truckload of 28 convicts left Shasta County Sunday morning and arrived at midday Monday. A five-engine team from Siskiyou County pitched in on Honey Springs Road by mid-afternoon.

They entered a hilly area that had transformed from a placid, chaparral-covered landscape into a frightening wind-fueled inferno. Firefighting helicopters thumped overhead, making long, slow circles to dump torrents of water.

Nearby shopping center parking lots in Rancho San Diego were converted into staging areas for Border Patrol agents and San Diego County Sheriffs. Dozens of recreational vehicles and trailers camped out.

At nearby Steele Canyon High School, displaced families scanned television screens for news about the ranches and homes they’d left behind — with little luck.

“After about an hour watching TV, they realize there’s not as much attention down here,” Sheriff’s Chaplain Randy Yenter said. “We don’t have the big homes they have in North County. And it raises their frustration and anxiety.”

The lack of information frustrated some rural residents, especially one Spanish-speaking couple from Dulzura, who didn’t hear about the fire until a sheriff’s deputy knocked on their door with the fire nearby.

“No one told us anything,” said Cecilia Zimmermann Rada in Spanish, sprawled with her husband Saul on the grass outside the school. They’d grabbed a dog carrier, loaded with squirming three-week-old puppies. Left behind were their birth certificates, Rada’s station wagon and most of her clothing, she said, pointing to the battered slippers on her feet.

“We left everything,” Rada said, “and we’re going to lose everything.”

Others escaped with more notice. Chris Brown, 40, began packing Sunday — at the same time that his 4-year-old dog, Holly, started getting antsy. Before leaving Monday, Brown took his video camera to document the flames that were rushing up State Route 94 east of the Jamul Indian Village.

Sunday night, he’d watched the glowing flames in the distance. But the fire had pushed within a mile of his home. Time was short.

“The most important thing, the family’s out, the documents are out,” Brown said, as ash fell around him. “Mother Nature’s going to run its course.”

Up on the top of a still-unburned hillside, two panicked mule deer bounded across the horizon. Brown got back in his truck.

“It never becomes easy when you see flames,” he said. “And everything you’ve worked for in life, the threat of it not being there when you come back, it doesn’t get any easier.”

Voice Staff Writer Emily Alpert contributed to this report.

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