by: Lou Angeli
San Diego County, CA (October 24, 2007) -- While fire crews late Tuesday began to control some fires in Los Angeles county, officials in San Diego were concerned that the fires could march toward more populated areas along the Pacific Ocean.
A shift in the prevailing winds in the area late Tuesday, from the fierce but predictable Santa Ana winds, to more volatile western ones, also plagued firefighters.
The LA Times reports that by late Tuesday, the blazes had burned 420,424 acres -- about 656 square miles -- and destroyed 1,155 homes, making these incidents nearly as large as the fires in October 2003 that are considered the largest in California history.
CNN is reporting that nearly 1 million have been evacuated or displaced.
The blazes have killed six and injured at least 70 more. Thirty-four firefighters have been hurt, authorities said. Two firefighters were in critical condition, including a woman firefighter who had been burned severly and was placed in a medically induced coma.
San Diego Fire Department Battalion Chief Bruce Cartelli described scenes of "utter devastation" with hundreds of homes lost and "many hundreds" of others damaged.
“It's probably the worst significant event in my career of 36 years," Cartelli said.
"It will not end ... until it reaches the ocean or the winds turn around." (1)
In many areas, firefighters were no match for speeding flames and sought refuge in aluminum fire shelters or retreated in the face of burning hillsides. Strong winds made attacks from the air difficult.
The winds are so fierce that flames simply leap over firebreaks created by dozer crews. At one hot spot near Pamona, the fire hurdled an eight-lane interstate where firefighters had staged for a defensive stand.
“This is absolute bullshit” said one San Diego County municipal firefighter. “Had we been given air support earlier, many of the fires could have stopped dead in their tracks.”
A senior fire official agreed. "If we had more air resources, we would have been able to control this fire," said a frustrated Orange County Fire Authority Chief Chip Prather. "Instead we've been stuck in this initial attack mode on the ground where we hopscotch through neighborhoods as best we can trying to control things." (2)
The head of the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection dismissed Prather’s claims. Ruben Grijalva said the fires, spread by winds that at times topped 100 mph, would have overwhelmed most efforts to fight them.
“We have 90 aircraft here,” Governor Schwarzenegger told ABC News. “And they can't fly because of the wind situation." (3)
Immediate Need: Additional Firefighters
Governor Schwarzenegger ordered the state’s corrections department to deploy more than 2,640 trained inmate firefighters to the southern California wildfires. The inmate strike teams’ deployments are being coordinated through the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
The OES is also coordinating the movement of strike teams from central and northern California. Each strike team is comprised of 15 firefighters, from various municipal departments, under the command of a Team Leader. The teams respond aboard OES engines that are placed strategically throughout the state.
Just last week, CalFire laid off it seasonal firefighting force of 1,400 employees. Those who are still available are being called back on a unit-to-unit basis.
(2) Los Angeles Times
(3) KGTV 10News.com