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Sticking Around After the Evacuations During a California Wildfire

Earlier this month there were 13 fires burning in the San Diego area. During mandatory evacuations, homeowners leave everything behind, knowing they might never see it again. Some stick around to fend off the flames themselves.
May 28, 2014, 4:12am

Photo by Katelyn Partlow

In a burnt out section of hills on Camino de la Cima in San Marcos, CA, a fire started and built to a roar. Brittle and already browned, the sticks of trees caught fast. My phone said it was 97 degrees outside, but it had no idea we were standing next to a raging fire.

Above us a supply line of helicopters and an occasional small plane dropped water and red colored powder to battle the fire at the top of the hill. It looked like a chair lift on a ski mountain in the middle of a Holi celebration.

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No one paid attention to the fire directly in front of us. I called out to the fireman nearby. With smiling eyes, he walked slowly to the fire and took it in. “In the middle of the black,” he said, and pointed to the ashes and blackened stumps in the area around the fire.

“Where could it go from here? We just watch it. Let it burn out. Thought this one would get bigger.” The area of this small fire “in the middle of the black” wasn’t large enough to cause alarm. The real alarm was directly above us, where a house was on fire and there was a line of trees capable of carrying the fire to many other houses.

With winds that fast, embers can jump across mountain ridges and start new burns with no notice. It’s one of the theories as to why there were 13 or more fires burning in the San Diego area. Another theory is arson. Others say the origin is heat, drought, and backfire from cars.

By the time we climbed to the top of this hill, the helicopters and planes had finished off the blaze and moved on to a fresh fire. The new black smoke blotted out the sunset.

We reached where a house had been burnt to the ground, and found that it was more of a blueprint than an actual home. Small fires still danced around the rubble left over from someone's home life, now just a part of "the black."

The fire was jumping, and firemen were stationed all over to react.  We saw black clouds in every direction. Homes along every hill crest. We wondered where it could go from here.

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In response to the spread, authorities had declared evacuation zones, and deputies informed citizenry, “Once you leave this area, you will not be allowed back until we are alerted otherwise.” Backpackers nodded as they crossed the line. They were displaced homeowners of every demographic.

We passed by following black clouds. Inside the evacuated zone we stopped at an intersection to look at a topographical map. Which way was up?

We followed "up" to get to the fire.

Suddenly we heard a voice from outside our car, cursing. “Can you give me a ride? Can’t get back to my house. Left the keys in the car, cats running around, wallet on my driveway.”

We had already been alerted of possible looters, but the details of his account and the rubber hose on his back won him a ride in our car, a decision that also promised us a way back into all the action, where we could take pictures of images no one had seen.

It turned out Charlie had been up and down the hill a few times. He restores vehicles worth up to $150,000 out of his home garage, and he wouldn’t let his work burn up in the fire. He wasn’t interested in evacuating either, and didn’t understand why police officials restricted access to his home.

He called his wife to tell her he was headed back up to the fire. We heard the sounds of a quick lover’s spat. “Well I’m busy saving our house,” he told her. He hung up and laughed. “Yesterday she was afraid I was gonna die. Today she’s mad at me.”

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When Charlie bought this house in the 1990s, he was well aware of the risk of wildfires. He designed the area around his house to ward off the spread of a wildfire. “You’ll see when you get up there. The brush burnt off some, but nothing touched my house.”

He showed us pictures and video of the fire approaching his fences. His nervous laughter was audible in the audio of the video that showed flames 20 feet high.

Earlier, wildfires shot through the valley and coursed by his hill. Then the wind changed, and fire hurtled toward his property. Charlie had already cleared his pool area of all flammable material like umbrellas and chairs, and he had chainsawed the brush and trees.

After a morning of fire watching, Charlie decided it was time to set a defensive fire, known as a back fire, to clear dry brush, the primary fuel of wildfires. It is a technique straight from the firefighter handbook.

With the fire headed his way, Charlie made a deliberate act to cut its path before the fire devoured his home. “Common sense will tell you: See the fire? Nothing between you and the fire? If the wind is favorable—headed towards the fire—the conditions were perfect for a defensive move.”

As he set his fire, Charlie didn’t realize he was being watched by a firefighter and his camera. The pictures were picked up by a news outlet who ran the story. Their portrait of Charlie now has him facing arson allegations from local police.

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“The fireman knew that it didn’t pose any danger to anyone or the structures around us. It was just me and the fire.”

Charlie’s training may not explicitly include starting a back fire, but he's been trained in a long list of safety skills including EMT, first aid, and confined space certification. He also spent years working for the Encina Waste Water Authority, which provided hazmat training and fire classes. He was one of the three last men on the Silo Fire in Carlsbad, a fire that, if not contained could have started an explosion that “would have taken a huge chunk out of the interstate.”

Charlie has lived by his hands his whole life in Southern California, and in North County since the 1970s. He has no reason to shy away from a fire that could consume the retirement home he personally designed, but the police are investigating a crime with a sentence of up to 20 years in jail.

He pointed off to a smoking ridge in the distance and said, “Poor guy’s in Houston. Hasn’t even seen the house his wife bought. Burnt down yesterday.”

We were walking up a hill, and Charlie stopped to sit on the ground, on account of his bad hip. “Don’t get hit by a car,” he said, gulping down some water. Charlie rides motorcycles every year in Colorado with his firefighter buddies. He has stories for days.

It was night before we reached his house. He grabbed a flashlight to dump gas into a generator, and soon the lamps around his driveway flickered on. The massive garages where his work normally sits were empty.

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Inside his house were numerous dog crates and dog beds, for the neglected dogs he and his wife had taken in. He offered us beers and opted for the can over a bottle. Next, he showed us the backyard with remnants of a fire party the night before. There were half bottles of liquor in the pool, along with leftover pie and strawberries from the previous night’s feast. “Fire came back around 1 A.M.—well, not too sure what time it was.”  The solar panels in his backyard faced the smoke-filled sky.

Photo by Katelyn Partlow

His firehoses were laid out front like snakes baring fangs at intruders, ready to fight. “This is my house to protect,” he said. “You can’t guarantee your house will be saved unless you’re standing with your own hose fighting the fire. When firemen see you fighting your own fire, they’ll join you.”

“The fire department are stretched thin. They have a lock off list: a list of houses that are defendable and those that aren't. This is the only way we protect ourselves,” Charlie said. The list is not public information, and there’s a fine line between protecting one’s home and breaking the law. “If a fireman is told to stand back and save his hide, he’s gonna save it.”

In the darkness Charlie’s house and grounds felt like a castle on a hill, overlooking the lights of the city below him. Charlie planned to stay the night and hook that rubber hose to his generator to tie into his power supply and run electricity back to his house.

Charlie is not the sort to be left “in the middle of the black.”

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