Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2007 | Ash signaled the coming threat.
In late morning Tuesday, flakes began drifting down on a patio along Millar Ranch Road, in the shadow of freshly burned San Miguel Mountain. Winds had shifted. The fire that had already pushed through was coming back.
The wind picked up, and the smoky air began to taste acrid. Fire was approaching the northern boundary of the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge. Six homes were in the way.
As the sky turned dark orange, 44-year-old Gordon Tamplin, a Fish and Wildlife Service firefighter out of Jamul, surveyed one of the homesteads: A red-tile roofed rancher surrounded by eucalyptus trees swaying in the westerly breeze. The porch light was on.
Somewhere out of sight, the Harris Fire was roaring closer.
“Unless aircraft hit it,” the 19-year veteran said, it’ll be here in “probably an hour. It’s been making weird runs.”
It was 11:40 a.m.
The familiar thump of water-dropping helicopters was absent. Tamplin and three other crew members from Engine 58 were on their own to defend the one-story home. Like lifeguards keeping watch, a different crew stood guard over each home. The goal: To let the main fire pass by and protect the home from lingering embers.
The scene was repeated throughout East County all day Tuesday. As the 72,000-acre Harris Fire blazed out of control, groups of four and five yellow-clad firefighters kept their eyes fixed on the closest horizon, waiting for an inferno they hoped would dodge the home they’d been assigned to safeguard.
Tamplin’s radio cracked. The fire has picked up. It’s going down the hill.
In the smoky haze in front of him, two drainage channels wound through the landscape — perfect conduits for the raging fire. They were dangerous. With the wind whipping, the fire could quickly surround the house and sneak up behind the crew. A nearby empty lot was their safe zone, the one place they knew they could wait out the torrent of debris and heat.
“We’re pretty safe with the dirt lot,” said Matt Sowell, a 25-year-old firefighter from Bonita. “My only concern is to do our best to protect this house.”
It was 11:47 a.m. Twenty-foot flames leapt over a hill in the distance and began dancing through the shrubs. In the following minutes, the wind shifted one way and then back, drawing the sun out briefly and again shrouding the property in an orange-gray pall. Songbirds let loose siren-like calls. Somewhere out there, power lines were beginning to collapse.
As the fire drew nearer, the horizon turned a vibrant orange. The radio offered another warning: Fire is wrapping around to the southwest. We just need to use our heads.
It was 12:09 p.m. Two firefighters unloaded their engine’s hose as a helicopter began hovering overhead. The sun hid behind black clouds, rippling in waves of heat. Within 10 minutes, two copters were circling so close to the ground that the earth shook. Flames were barely 500 feet away, the heat licking at the firefighters’ faces.
As chaos surrounded the home, a placid glimpse of normalcy emerged: A green-backed hummingbird zipped in to the feeder at 2848 Millar Ranch, sipped up red nectar and darted back out.
Eric Smith, a 31-year-old firefighter, kept his eyes on the fire, watching as it exploded into what Tamplin estimated were 100-foot-tall flames.
Somehow, miraculously, it was staying away from the home. A small dirt road acted as a natural fire break. By 12:37, the red-tiled home looked safe. Within 10 minutes, Sowell and Louis Stewart, 22, began rolling up their hose.
“I’ll wrap it up,” Stewart told his colleague, as they took the hose around front. “Don’t let it hit the roses.”
Engine 58 spent two hours at 2848 Millar Ranch before leaving. Most of the time they waited. But with the help of a backfire and a natural fire break, they were able to steer the fire around the home, a protective move that was repeated on a massive scale throughout East County on Tuesday. Officials said crews helped save an estimated 250 nearby homes, including six on Millar Ranch. But as many as 500 homes have been destroyed during the Harris Fire’s three-day rampage from Potrero to Spring Valley’s doorstep.
“There’s no stopping it,” said Zachary O’Neill, a CalFire engineer from Jamacha. “Pushing it around the houses is the priority. A fire this size, with the resources we have, it’s only safe to go defensive. You save more houses that way.”
O’Neill was standing behind a house just down the road from 2848 Millar Ranch, watching as a head of the Harris Fire pushed through a stand of manzanita and up a hill. A tied-up goat and a dozen cawing roosters kept him company.
He stayed there through the afternoon, as other fronts of the fire exploded, cutting off the only route into Millar Ranch. Flames roared at 4 p.m., despite attempts to keep it from crossing the road. The blaze again crept toward homes, each with its own fire crew.
Engine 58 moved down the road to a country-styled home surrounded by rusted antiques. A sign out front read: Kesslers Casa. With another fire growing in the distance, the crew hosed down the shrubby hillside. While they worked, the valley below disappeared into a haze.
As a blood-red sun set behind charred mountains, Engine 58 caught a break on the patio. They sat quietly, serenaded by the eerie rhythm of a rusty windmill and the steady tchuk-tchuk of a sprinkler atop the house.
Tamplin took off his sunglasses and dug into a sandwich. Soot traced black lines around where the glasses had been. In front of him, flames tumbled down a mountain toward Steele Canyon High School — an evacuation shelter.
Tamplin said he was confident the fire would die down before reaching the shelter. But its flank was creeping closer to Kesslers Casa.
His radio again popped. I know it’s coming. It’s coming. I hope it doesn’t catch one of these drainages.
“It’s gonna,” Tamplin said.
And under a pink moon, the ash began to fall.