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Edited by: John Stewart

TDS Assists American Red Cross During Firestorm 2003

By: Gale “Mac” MacDougall

The winds were steadily blowing out of the east that Sunday morning of October 26, 2003. There was a glow in the eastern sky and the smell of smoke hung heavy in the air as I stepped out of my home in the Clairemont neighborhood of San Diego. I looked over at my Jeep Cherokee and saw that a thick layer of ash had settled on the vehicle overnight; quite nicely covering the rust and dirt.

I knew we were in for serious trouble this time. We had never had ash this far west from wildfires in the east county. I went inside and called the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) of the American Red Cross Chapter in San Diego and asked what they needed us to do. The Emergency Operations Center put me in contact with the Damage Assessment team leader. I asked how soon they would need our assistance and told them we could field 15 teams of qualified Damage Assessment Technicians with Ham Radios and 4x4 vehicles with a couple of days notice. I was told that they could use all the help they could get as this looked like it was going to be a bad one.

When disaster strikes, the American Red Cross is on the scene assessing the damage and arranging for emergency services for people displaced by the disaster. TDS club members began working with local Red Cross officials to provide special capabilities they did not have. The normal Red Cross volunteers are familiar with city streets and had no problem driving to a house fire. A wildfire in the east county provided challenges they were not equipped to handle; challenges involving a need for extra manpower, special transportation, and communications. We solved that problem by providing the extra volunteers, complete with specially equipped 4x4 vehicles, drivers familiar with the back county roads, and licensed amateur radio operators able to maintain the critical communications link. We provide a high cost service as volunteers.

On Monday, October 27, the Mayor of San Diego asked everyone to keep their travel to a minimum and not go to work unless absolutely necessary as the fire and police departments would need the roads empty for emergency traffic. I reported to the Red Cross EOC to begin coordinating the logistics and personnel needs that Tierra Del Sol Four Wheel Drive Club could provide to the Damage Assessment effort. On Tuesday, we fielded four teams to assist the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services (EOC) doing damage assessment representing the Red Cross. These teams continued to work with the county through the end of the week while I manned the D/A desk at the Red Cross EOC.

On Thursday we were cleared to field our own teams to do the initial Damage Assessment for the Red Cross. Tierra Del Sol Four Wheel Drive Club fielded 10 vehicles and teamed up with other volunteers to begin the Damage Assessment at three separate fires. Three teams each were assigned to the Paradise Fire in Valley Center and Julian/Santa Ysabella area. Two teams each were assigned to Scripps Ranch and Lake Cuyamaca area.

Everywhere we traveled, we saw nothing but total destruction. The intense fire created it’s own weather. It was a true conflagration with the firestorm building winds in excess of 100 MPH and walls of fire close to 200 feet high in some areas. We received a report that the north peak of Cuyamaca Mountain was beginning to burn; followed by a report 20 minutes later that the peak was gone. This caused us some difficulties with communications, as the radio repeaters necessary for communications with the teams were on that peak. They survived but the power lines were destroyed.

The fire came through an area with erratic fury and force that would sweep down a canyon taking everything in its path and leaving a few things unscathed in its wake. At the sight of the oldest cabin in Julian, nothing but the tin roof and foundation remained while across the narrow valley a house was standing on top of a hill untouched. A close inspection of this structure found that the caretakers house was destroyed but the main house was spared due to a wind shift.

As we continued, it was as if we were driving across a desolate desert, not one living thing; just charred sticks and burned ground for miles and miles. The wind picked up and the ash was thick in the air making it difficult to breath. It was like perpetual twilight and we drove with headlights to see where we were going. And the heat, it was a dry heat like standing by a campfire for too long, but there was nowhere to go to escape the heat.

We were amazed by the complete destruction everywhere we went. We were even more amazed by the attitude of the people we met and visited. Every one of the people we spoke with in the “back-country” was very positive and upbeat; even as they stood in the ashes of their homes with nothing except the clothes on their backs. They all said, “It was just material stuff. No one died here. We will rebuild and go on from here.”

Everyone had a story to tell. Every person we came across was appreciative of our efforts and all were very thankful for the efforts of the firefighters and others who had come to their aid.

One man was sitting beside a motor home that was parked next to his burned out home. We asked if he needed anything. He said “No. Got pretty much everything I need. Ran out of toothpaste this morning. Then I remembered there was some in the bathroom. So, I went to get it, but the bathroom is over there.“ He pointed over to some rubble in the back of his burned out house. “It is gone now.” In that area, there were 23 homes, only 3 were burned. Other areas were not as fortunate.

In Harbison Canyon, we came across an old rock cabin completely destroyed. We talked to one of the residents and learned it was the oldest cabin in that part of the canyon and had been there for over 100 years

I have learned many great lessons from this disaster. While fire is a terrible thing, every person I spoke with said they had great faith and believed that everything would be okay. It was just ‘stuff’. As long as no one died, it was just ‘stuff’. This experience was just part of living in the country. The fires come every year. You just have to accept it, prepare for it, fight for what you have, but then be ready to run. Life goes on….

Tierra del Sol Four Wheel Drive Club was there to help with these fires and we will be there to help next time. It is important that we as a community assist our neighbors, quietly, consistently, and without much fanfare. During the following weeks, TDS members contributed almost 600 volunteer hours to assist a community in need.

I am very proud of our club and all our members who put aside whatever they were doing to lend a hand. Tierra del Sol Four Wheel Drive Club is a group of 50 families; 46 are Amateur Radio operators and 30 are involved with Disaster Services. We stand ready to come to the assistance of our community whenever we are needed. We encourage you to volunteer with the agency of your choice.

Gale “Mac” MacDougall
Disaster Services Co-Chair,
Tierra Del Sol Four Wheel Drive Club of San Diego

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