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Reader JF, the fire department’s unofficial spokesman, asks in his prolific posting #11 an interesting and fair question — am I a member of the Scripps Ranch Community Emergency Response Team (CERT)? No, I am not.

I was looking into it in 2003 after the Cedar fires — I wanted to get involved in a citizen firefighting effort. But CERT members are forbidden to put out any fire “larger than a waste paper trash can.” CERT volunteers are the modern, gender-neutral version of the ever useful old-style military “women’s auxiliary” corps — performing useful services, but not doing any of the actual fighting. That’s not what I wanted to do.

But pity the poor Scripps Ranch CERT volunteers. For the four years since the Cedar fire, they have been training to assist the fire department. Come the Witch fire, and apparently no one in the fire department thought to activate them.

Of the 70 volunteers, TWO were called up to hand out coffee at the Mira Mesa High School — the rest were ignored, and later told to join the crunch of folks evacuating. Truth be told, the fire department has made no provision to use CERT at all during a major brush fire. The La Jolla CERT unit was activated to help get some fire engines out of mothballs at station 28, though that had nothing to do with their training. But not the more critical Scripps Ranch unit — all that training for naught.

JF goes on to claim that Navy personnel wouldn’t know how to extinguish an ember. Again, he doesn’t phrase it that way, but that’s the condescending attitude of labor union firefighters intent on maintaining their lucrative monopoly. Believe me, fighting external fires in a developed subdivision is not rocket science n it ain’t even third grade arithmetic. Ember comes down, put it out.

It helps if you have some firefighting gear and especially good masks, but that’s secondary to simply being there when the embers come. Scores of unprepared civilians did it with no gear, using only garden hoses, and not one died in the city of San Diego in either fire. Only in the boonies are such volunteers at serious risk.

Then JF claims that there is no such thing as a mandatory evacuation, and, because he thinks I don’t know that, it’s “one more example of how out of touch you are.” Wrong, as usual. But not totally wrong. I’ll let SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE columnist Logan Jenkins explain how it works (from an email he sent me):

“Richard … A quick note on what I understand about the mandatory evacuation law. Calif. Penal Code 409.5 is pretty clear that defying an official order to evacuate is a misdemeanor.

Checked that out with the DA’s office yesterday. The thing is, it’s never been tested in court, according to a retired fire official I talked to who took this matter to the governor’s office 10 years ago. Fire and police agencies appear to have adopted the interpretation that those inside an evacuation zone can stay, those outside have to stay out. I think Caldwell repeated a policy based upon a practical interpretation of the law.

After all, no jury is going to convict someone for protecting his house. Plus, emergency personnel don’t see much percentage in chasing down people to cite them for a crime they’ll never be convicted of.

Does the mandatory evacuation pack teeth? In theory, yes; in fact, no.

For what it’s worth, Logan”

My point is that the police and politicians should tell folks that these “mandatory evacuations” are not. Especially in the city of San Diego, such suburban evacuations should be optional. Encouraged, but not mandatory.

Yes, as you might have suspected, I “broke the law.” I did not evacuate when the recorded message came. Call the SWAT team!

I sent off my wife and younger son (who is on crutches from a sports injury) with two carloads loaded with goodies we wanted saved. My bride was terrific — she accepted without argument my decision that, unlike the 2003 fire, it was okay for me — a rather overweight 62-year-old with a back problem — to stay and fight the only fire threat to our home: embers. I felt fortunate that I was unexpectedly joined by my older son, who came down from Santa Barbara to help out.

While it is not an enforceable crime to stay, one better not wander away from one’s home, as apparently the police CAN then arrest you (or at least deport you out of the fire area) as you might be a potential looter. Trying to ENTER an officially evacuated area, even if you live there, apparently is an arrestable offense, though it might not stand up to a jury trial.

Here’s an unintended consequence — if I go next door to water down the embers around my neighbor’s house, I might be subject to arrest, as I’m no longer on my property. Seldom would such madness occur, but essentially that seems to be the letter of the law.

If the police do come to arrest me, they’ll need to first go get former San Diego fire chief Jeff Bowman, who defied mandatory evacuation orders to leave his Escondido home.

Was my two-man home defense team alone in Scripps Ranch after the mandatory evacuation? Not hardly! Turns out that quite a number of men (apparently it’s a guy thing) quietly stayed at home, choosing not to answer the door when the police came by with their eviction demand (actually a bluff). I didn’t know about this until after the evacuation order was rescinded. And I’m discovering more semi-criminals for days afterwards.

Once the police pulled out, each hidden homeowner independently proceeded to make whatever preparations we deemed appropriate to deal with the fire threat. While the government provides zero guidance or assistance in such matters, common sense and previous fire experience with the 2003 fire served as a pretty good counselor.

It would have been helpful to know which houses were being actively defended. It helps when one civilian home firefighter can sleep while the other one keeps watch. But because remaining behind to defend one’s home is wrongly assumed to be illegal, we each kept to ourselves and lacked such backup (except in my case, since I had an able, athletic co-worker). Hence we have yet another example of how government’s overzealous protection of us can unexpectedly put us at greater risk.

At my home, I had four garden hoses rigged up and ready to go. To deal with low water pressure, I set up a ladder to the roof, where I rigged a home-made cistern filled with water. I had other water-holding containers around the house (except out front, so as not to draw unwanted police attention). In addition, we have a full Jacuzzi. Wet blankets were ready to smother small fires.

Suburban fire fighting of these mislabeled “brush fires” is a very serious adult version of the kids’ “whack-a-mole” game. An ember lands on a bush, you put it out. Then you run around, constantly looking for other embers, trying to douse them before they can get a fire going. Ideally you have at least two active fire fighters — one on the roof, and one running the parameter. But one person often can do the job — at least as long as you have a pretty fireproof roof.

Of course, one can lose this contest. So there can come a point where you have to retreat, giving up on the house. I have two contingency plans for such a defeat.

A.) Get in my car in the street. As we know, suburban fires leave one house standing, the next house burned. So the lack of uniform high heat gives a person in a reasonably wide suburban street the option to move to a cooler area, of flee all together of the chance presents itself. Even just staying in the center of the street should in most cases be adequate to avoid incineration of suffocation.

B.)If perchance the road doesn’t offer a suitable relief choice, my back yard neighbor has a huge pool. In a pinch, I would retreat (complete with my mask and snorkel) to that body of water and wait out the worst of the fire.

Here’s the thing most people don’t realize — while risky, suburban firefighting is FAR less dangerous than you would expect — especially when you consider the stakes involved — one’s home. Based on numerous examples I’m personally familiar with from the 2003 fires, in every instance, the suburban homeowner/firefighter won. Not ONE suburban homeowner died. Not ONE! I don’t think one was even significantly injured.

Not only that — in case after case, the homeowner/firefighter often saved the homes on either side of their house. And not with high tech gear — just garden hoses, shovels, wet blankets and buckets of water.

Looking back at the disastrous 2003 Scripps Ranch fire, it is clear to me that at least 80 percent of the gutted homes could have been saved by such volunteer efforts. The houses too close to the brush were doomed without professional firefighters (who didn’t show up), but most houses that burned were abandoned targets of mindless embers drifting down. Indeed, if the few guys who did stay in 2003 hadn’t been there to defend homes, the destroyed house count would have been higher.

In the unexpected 2003 fire, I ran away, taking my family to safety. I’ve been angry with myself every since. But, in fairness, the image we all then had of a hundred foot fire sweeping through the suburb was daunting. Later, as we learned, it was a false image. I suspect that is why (from what I can discern) a significantly higher number of guys stayed behind this time to deal with the fire threat.

Some think the risk of staying is too great. In particular, they worry about a “fire storm” which sucks up all the oxygen. For a variety of reasons, that’s not what happens in today’s suburban fires. Not even close.

But here’s the bottom line: If you want to stay and fight a fire, it should be YOUR choice. The government should in a position to provide fire evacuation ADVICE and information, but they are a poor choice for making MANDATORY decisions concerning what we are willing to risk as individuals.

— RICHARD RIDER

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