ECM reporters allowed inside evacuation area to assess damage
By Nadin Abbott; photos by Nadin and Tom Abbott
July 9, 2013 (Mt. Laguna)— For owners of property on Mount Laguna, the past 24-hours have been heart-wrenching. The Chariot Fire has reportedly destroyed 108 structures along Sunrise Highway, including the Al Bahr Shrine Camp and one lost at the Sierra Club Guymon Lodge. The blaze has scorched over 7,055 acres and is now 40 percent contained. Highway 79 is open but Sunrise Highway remains closed from 79 to I-8.
Peering through thick smoke late yesterday at the Shrine Camp site (photo, left), we saw a husk of burnt metal and the charred remains of other structures. We later learned that losses included the 87-year-old lodge and a dozen or more cabins.
As we made our way down the Sunrise Highway we saw crews fighting the fire in sections on both sides of the highway. Well beyond the main burn area, five miles or so further down the line, we found crews from Los Angeles, Coronado, The US Navy, Los Angeles County, Barona, Santee, Alpine and a brush crew from Viejas. They were setting a back burn.
We made our way back to the Sierra Club site, where we found one building still standing and another burned to a cinder.
John Stump with the Sierra Club later confirmed that Foster Lodge, the main building at the camp, remained standing. The burned building was known as the Cabin, or “Mandolff’s Hutte” to insiders.
“It was used for hostelling drop-in activities of individuals and family groups,” Stump told ECM. It was also adapted to encourage participation of physically challenged and disabled people. “The loss of the cabin will severely limit the amount of programming the Sierra Club can provide and it will interfere with the housing for the Sierra Club’s all volunteer conservation caretakers,” he added. The group seeks volunteers to help with cleaning up the site and loan of a cleanup site trailer, Stump told ECM’s editor.
Visibility was poor at best as we made our way back to the Sunrise Highway and turned right. Our next stop was going to be Monument Peak.
As readers of ECM know, KNSJ radio launched transmission on the Fourth of July. The transmitter for the radio station is on top of Monument Peak. Fire burned to within a half mile of the tower.
We first got on another road where we were able to watch the Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT) do its drops. It is a DC-10 modified for fire fighting operations. These were brought back from Nevada were they were serving as part of mutual aid, but the Incident Commander felt they were needed at this fire. So we got to see a very rare sight, VLAT’s doing bombing runs with scout planes flying ahead of them, marking the flight path for the DC-10s using smoke.
These planes were laying heavy retardant on the slope of Monument Peak from the near slope from Storm Canyon (where the fire was very well established), as well as all around the mid- slope surrounding the peak.
Cal Fire’s fear that the fire would reach the forest unfortunately came to be a reality; last night we watched the forest burning. It is now established in heavy fuels.
The direction of the wind at the time was mostly towards the east, pushing the fire towards the desert. We also could hear the chainsaws in the distance, as Hot Shot crews worked to physically remove the fuel from the path of the fire. A hot shot was directing operations from the Helipad at Monument Peak by radio communications.
Wind gusts of up to 30 miles per hour whipped across the peak. As we watched the fire take hold, and heard crews work very hard to protect Monument Peak, the VLATs and other bombers in the fleet were making runs painting the place with retardant, down to mid slope. They already had done that in the higher elevation of the peak.
As we left we saw a full strike team drive to the helipad. This was Strike Team 6438 Charlie, made up of brush trucks from Poway Fire Department, the United States Navy, Chula Vista and San Diego Fire Department. We know they expected a long night on the line, protecting Monument Peak and the antennas, not just KNSJ’s, on it. This is a major piece of infrastructure that fire people will fight to defend.
On the way down we met with Mike Moehler, Cal Fire spokesman, who told us that the fire remained just 15% contained at 4700 acres; today it has swelled well above 5,000.
He added that there was “extreme fire behavior. We are hoping that the winds cooperate with us tonight.”
Moheler added that they have 36 crews assigned, that be hand crews, he did not know the exact number of hot shot crews.
He also said that Highway 79 all the way to Old Highway 80 remained closed with the area under mandatory evacuation. He added that the shelter at 2001 Tavern Road is still open, and it is friendly to small animals. But if evacuees need help with large animals, to call County Animal Control to assist them. He also asks residents to “be cognizant of his surroundings.”
The fire had not made any headway towards the Cuyamacas, nor towards Pine Valley in the south as of last night. Still, it’s wise to keep informed of the fire’s progress and be ready in case the winds shift.
When we went to the Red Cross Shelter at 2001 Tavern, we found it had now become an overnight shelter. But there were only four people there, according to Hillary Schuller Jones, Public Information Officer for the American Red Cross, San Diego-Imperial County Chapter Disaster Services.
Many campers had opted to go home, as the firestorm scorched their vacation plans.
Despite the devastation there are some bright spots; ECM learned today that the El Prado, Laguna and Horse Heaven campgrounds, which had been threatened survived the devastating blaze.