Fires important experience for East Fork |

Fires important experience for East Fork

by Kurt Hildebrand

Firefighters from East Fork found themselves working on three fires during the week and a half they spent in Southern California.

Santa Ana winds whipped up fires all over the southwest corner of the state, burning more than half a million acres and forcing hundreds of thousands from their homes starting Oct. 21. More than a thousand homes were destroyed by the fires.

East Fork Fire & Paramedic Districts Capt. Tracy Connelly was among seven career and volunteer firefighters who left Oct. 22.

Connelly said Southern California residents were glad to see the Nevadans.

“The residents were overwhelmingly thankful,” he said. “They were always honking and waving at all the engines.”

They arrived at a firefighting camp in Prado near Temecula, Calif., at about 11 p.m. and were told to bed down for the night.

That lasted until 1 a.m. when they were assigned to the Rosa fire west of Temecula, which was started by an arsonist that night. Connelly said the East Fork engine protected homes and laid hoses in the fire fight.

“We didn’t get pulled off the line until 6 p.m. on Oct. 23,” he said. “We were up for about 48 hours before they sent us back to Temecula.”

There the Nevadans found themselves on the opposite side of a park that also served as an evacuation center.

“They had us on one end and all the civilians on the other side,” he said. “The camp was very limited in resources and there weren’t meals for us. It was very barren and there were at least 30 engines and their crews there at any given time.”

The Nevadans slept in the park and stayed there until the morning of Oct. 25 when they were sent back up on the line to protect the 175 homes threatened by the fire. At the time they were three miles from the where the Rice fire was burning through Fallbrook.

Connelly graduated from high school in Fallbrook, but said this wasn’t how he thought he would be returning to the town.

“I lived there for four years and it was kind of like going back home,” he said. “I really didn’t expect to be down there, besides visiting a friend who still lives there. It was kind of strange to be back in that area in a different capacity.”

By the afternoon of Oct. 25, the engine crew was released from the Rosa fire and assigned to the 49,410-acre Poomacha fire located southeast of Temecula near the LaJolla Indian Reservation.

Most of that work was mop up of areas the fire had already burned through. The strike team they were assigned to worked a 24-hour shift but were taken off the line the next day.

The Poomacha fire which destroyed 143 homes is where Connelly said the Nevadans saw the most damage.

“There where a lot of homes destroyed there and we didn’t see any homeowners back yet,” he said. “There was a lot of burned countryside, that’s for sure.”

After sleeping on lawns for a week, the engine crew got a hotel voucher in Encinitas.

The next day they were back in the staging area located at the base of Palomar Mountain near Highway 76. By Oct. 29, the crew was back off the line and received another hotel voucher, this time in Temecula.

On Oct. 30, the structure engines were released to go home. Connelly and some of his crew swapped spots with the Topaz brush engine crew and stayed another day.

By Halloween, the brush engine was also on its way home.

“I think the people learned a lot,” he said. “I know I learned some things. It was a great learning experience in a horrible situation.”

Connelly thanked the members of the Nevada crews and the East Fork district administrators.

“They sent two pieces of equipment 500 miles away to help with these fires,” he said. “It’s great that they entrusted us to do stuff like that.”