HIGH FIRE DANGER, SANTA ANA WINDS STARTING TONIGHT

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CAL Fire gears up with extra airpower, asks homeowners to take defensive
steps;
SDG&E may cut power in high-risk areas

Story and photos by
Miriam Raftery

October 12, 2008 (El Cajon) - CAL Fire has issued a warning that the
danger of wildfire is high due to forecasts of Santa Ana winds starting tonight
combined with already hot, dry conditions in San Diego’s East County.

“We
provide the offense,” CAL Fire Batallion Chief Ray Chaney said at a press
conference this morning, where reporters received a briefing on preparations
being made to battle a major conflagration.  “It’s up to homeowners
to provide the defense.”

Two additional helicopters have been brought in for this weekend’s wind
event to supplement five choppers already in San Diego County for this year’s
fire season.  Aircraft from the U.S. Marines and Navy are also on standby,  including
SH 60 Blackhawk helicopters, CH 53 Sea Stallions, and CH 46 units.  “These
are very large aircraft that all have water pickup and drop capability,” Chaney
confirmed. 

A
Sheriff’s helicopter will coordinate communications between military
craft and others.

   “The smoke, environmental factors, and wind wreak havoc
on aircraft,” CAL Fire’s Steve Shoemaker said, noting hazards posed
to pilots and crews.  “We need direct and excellent communication
between aircraft.”  The Sheriff’s Department has four pilots
on standby this weekend including three helicopter pilots plus a 707 pilot.

CAL Fire has brought in five additional fire engines for a total of 33 available
this weekend, plus four additional hand crews for total of 24 and two additional
bulldozers.  A type-1 incident command team is also in place, Captain
Nick Shuler at CAL Fire confirmed. 

San Diego Gas & Electric Company (SDG&E) earlier this week announced
it is sending letters to 45,000 residents warning that it plans to shut-off
power to selected areas if fire danger is high, high winds are forecast and
several other key conditions are met.  SDG&E faces potentially huge
liability claims from downed power lines found to have caused several major
fires last year, including the devastating Witch Creek blaze. 

Homeowners are advised to clear at least 100 feet of defensible space around
their homes and to cut down low-hanging tree limbs that can serve as “fire
ladders”, Shuler said.

“Be prepared,” advised Chaney.  “Have a discussion
with your family on where and how to evacuate.  Have a plan. Start a phone
tree.  Do you have all your medications with you?  All these conversations
need to take place before the fire.”

Editor Miriam Raftery is a national award-winning journalist who
has been covering wildfires and fire-related issues in San Diego County
for the past 20 years.