Into the Fames | SierraSun.com

Into the Fames

Greyson Howard
Sierra Sun

AP Photo/John Gastaldo, San Diego Union-TribuneA Calfire firefighter tries to get a handle on the Witch Fire between Ramona and Santa Ysabel northeast of San Diego on Sunday. Truckee-area Calfire crews are currently fighting the Witch Fire that has claimed approximately 500 homes.

Truckee-based Calfire Capt. Dean Levonian has been in eastern San Diego County since 11 p.m. Monday fighting the Witch Fire near the inland town of Ramona.

“I’ve never been on a fire this big,” Levonian said. “Where I am, it’s not the most intense fire I’ve been on, but I’d bet if you talked to some of the guys on the leading edge, they’d say it’s the most intense fire they’ve been on.”

The wind, a central problem for the Southern California fires, was blowing 15 to 20 mph, with temperatures in the 80s, Levonian said.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the Witch Fire had burned 165,000 acres, and destroyed 500 homes, 100 commercial buildings and 50 outbuildings, compared to the Angora Fire’s 3,100 acres and 254 homes.

“We drove through lots and lots of burnt homes, but our mission is to keep from losing any more,” Levonian said.

Those who stayed behind have anxiously waited for updates.

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“I talked to our people down there this morning and all is well, but there is no estimate for how long they will be down there,” said North Star Fire Chief Mark Shadowens.

Allen Riley, an engineer with the Squaw Valley Fire Department, said going to assist on out-of-area fires presents unique challenges.

“It’s difficult because you don’t know the local effects like weather patterns, and if you show up at night, you’re not seeing the terrain,” Riley said.

Typically in a big fire, engines and crews stage at a large venue like an airport or fairgrounds, and work in 12- to 24-hour shifts, he said.

“You park on the cement in the staging area and roll out your sleeping bag next to the engine,” Riley said.

The official fire season may be over in the Truckee-Tahoe region, but a series of catastrophic fires in Southern California has delayed the off-season plans of many local firefighters.

By Tuesday, Tahoe-Truckee fire districts had dispatched four engines and 17 personnel to help fight the Southern California fires, which had consumed a quarter-million acres of forest and brush, and destroyed more than a thousand structures.

In addition, the Nevada-Yuba-Placer unit of Calfire has sent another 10 engines, four hand crews, two dozers, and other personnel.

North Tahoe Fire Chief Duane Whitelaw, acting as a regional coordinator, estimated the greater Tahoe-Reno-Carson area has sent 20 to 25 engines altogether to aid in the fight.

“This is probably the fourth time we’ve gone out to fires out of our area this summer,” said Allen Riley, an engineer with the Squaw Valley Fire Department.

Engines and crews routinely respond to emergencies in areas throughout Northern California and Nevada, part of what Riley described as a normal interagency give-and-take, a relationship that found the Tahoe area on the receiving end this summer.

“This summer we had crews from all over the state, Reno, even Colorado, for the Angora Fire and Washoe Fire,” Riley said.

But local fire districts have to consider overall safety when lending resources to far-away fires, Whitelaw said, always giving first priority to local coverage.

“It’s kind of a balancing act because even though we’ve had rain and cooler temperatures, we are looking at the next week of nice warm weather and are mindful that our season may not be over yet,” Whitelaw said. ” We want to help, but also need to keep the home-front first priority.”

Chief Bryce Keller of the Truckee Fire Protection District said he elected not to send engines or personnel for that reason.

“The Truckee district itself elected not to send additional personnel because our primary focus is on our own community, not just for fire, but medical calls and all other emergencies,” Keller said.

Truckee Fire dispatched Capt. Craig Harvey to act as a division group supervisor in Southern California, an asset Keller said shouldn’t be undervalued compared to hand crews and equipment.

“Typically in these events, engines are very available, but they need leadership to direct and coordinate, and that’s where supervisors come into play,” Keller said.