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Firefighters engage in Destruction Derby at Fair


Last updated 6/19/2014 at Noon

The Rainbow Volunteer Fire Dept.

• Former Rainbow volunteer Kahle wins Firefighters Destruction Derby

• Ballester drives for Rainbow; Pala and Rainbow staff first arena suppression trucks

For the first time in the history of the Firefighters Destruction Derby, the Rainbow Volunteer Fire Department had an entry, and its driver, Mike Ballester, reached the finals of the demolition derby. Crews from the Rainbow and Pala fire departments were the first-ever arena suppression teams. And former Rainbow Volunteer Fire Department firefighter Ehren Kahle, who has been with the Imperial Beach fire department for the past 12 years, won the demolition derby June 7 which was part of the San Diego County Fair.

"It feels great. When you can raise money to send kids to camp, burn-injured children, and have a blast doing it, there's nothing more rewarding than that," Kahle said.

"It was absolutely awesome," Ballester said. "It was a great fundraiser for the Burn Institute as well as a great morale booster for our department as a whole."

In 1995, the Cajon Speedway, the Burn Institute, and local fire departments started collaborating for an annual night which included fundraising and promotions for the Burn Institute, a pre-race parade of fire trucks, an American flag raised from a fire engine ladder for the Star-Spangled Banner, and a Firefighters Destruction Derby. The Burn Institute and local firefighters also collaborated for an annual exposition and burn run at Qualcomm Stadium.

Kahle began his demolition derby career in 2002 at Cajon Speedway. "We could really get some running starts," he said.

The Cajon Speedway closed after the 2004 season, but in 2010 the exposition was moved to the San Diego County Fair and Burn Institute director James Floros contacted Bob Pfohl, who was Santee's fire chief when he won the 2000 destruction derby, about the possibility of a firefighters demolition derby at the fair. Pfohl, who became a division chief for the Viejas Fire Department after retiring from the City of Santee in 2006 and accepted a division chief position with the Barona Fire Department in the past year, agreed to organize the event.

Some changes due to the configuration of the Del Mar Arena were necessary. The parade of fire trucks takes place earlier in the day, the flag is not raised from a ladder inside the covered arena, and the cars are divided into heats. The current format involves two early afternoon heats with the last three running cars in each heat advancing to the finals, and a pair of last chance heats in the late afternoon allow the last remaining car in each of those two heats entry into the final crunchfest which follows the cleanup activity from the second last chance heat.

Kahle noted that having the burn exposition as part of the county fair has resulted in the attendance of more children, who are a major target of fire prevention outreach measures. "It seems like out here we can get more of a family crowd," he said.

Kahle drove in the 2011 Firefighters Destruction Derby but alternates with Imperial Beach firefighter Cory Cooper.

In 2013, another difference between Cajon Speedway and the fairgrounds version was recognized. Cajon Speedway had a regular fire crew with a truck to extinguish vehicle fires. The fair used fire extinguishers for the first four years. Last year, the car of CalFire firefighter Angel Hendrie became engulfed in flames. Hendrie was unhurt, and changes were made to reduce the risk of car fires.

One of those changes was the presence of suppression teams, with a truck as well as a firefighting crew, at each end of the arena.

"I think they ramped it up a little bit this year," said Pala Fire Department captain Jay Hearn, whose Unit 6612 was stationed at the north end of the arena.

Rainbow's unit was on standby at the south end of the arena. "We just decided to get into it this year," said Rainbow captain Matt Austin.

That included working on the demolition derby car as well as providing an arena fire suppression unit. S&R Towing in Oceanside donated a 1989 Chevy Caprice and also donated labor to help the car in the destruction derby. "They put a lot of hours into it just to get the motor running real nice," Austin said.

Thirty-three volunteers from the Rainbow Volunteer Fire Department joined the labor in helping to build the car. Ballester noted that both the work on the car and the fundraising activities brought the firefighters together.

Ballester was selected to be the driver. "I put the most hours into it," he said.

Ballester acknowledged that Austin also provided substantial work on the car. "I was a little more nimble," Ballester said.

Ballester has been with the Rainbow Volunteer Fire Department for four years. During his childhood he moved from the Rancho Bernardo area of San Diego to Temecula, and he is a 2008 graduate of Great Oak High School. He currently lives in Menifee.

Klay Symmes drove Rainbow's arena fire suppression truck. "It was a great experience," Symmes said. "Glad to help out the Burn Institute and raise money."

The Rainbow Volunteer Fire Department raised approximately $4,500 for the Burn Institute.

The 2014 Firefighters Destruction Derby had 17 cars with nine including Ballester in the first heat and eight including Kahle in the second heat. Ballester's first hit was on Oceanside Fire Department driver Cody Spinos while Robert Marcon of the Bonita-Sunnyside Fire Protection District was the first driver to hit Ballester. When Ballester backed the trunk of his Caprice into the front of Lemon Grove firefighter Joe Lavigne's car, the Caprice's trunk became disfigured.

Shortly after that contact, the Pala fire suppression unit saw action to extinguish flames under the hood of San Diego firefighter Joe Kennedy's car. "Gas was still in his exhaust," Hearn said. "It was just igniting right there."

When Spinos' car stopped moving, the checkered flag was thrown and Ballester, Marcon, and Brandon Massey of the Viejas Fire Department advanced to the finals. "We made it to the final round," Ballester said. "That's an experience."

Kahle also advanced from his heat along with Lakeside firefighter Danny Leetch and Barona driver Jake Murrell. The finals also included last chance heat survivors Lavigne and Mike Shoemaker of National City.

Ballester drove into the arena for the finals, but his car did not move after the green flag was thrown.

"At the end we dropped a drive shaft," Ballester said. "The drive shaft snapped and dropped down."

The immediate exit from the final didn't dampen Ballester's enthusiasm for the demolition derby. "It was a great time. Really learned a lot for next year," he said.

Kahle's final hit on Massey turned out to be the end of the event which was followed by Kahle receiving the Steve Brucker Memorial Trophy named after the Cajon Speedway promoter who helped initiate the Firefighters Destruction Derby.

"It's a great win for him. He worked really hard on getting it together," said Imperial Beach fire chief Tom Clark.

The win was the first ever for a driver from the Imperial Beach Fire Department, which has one station and nine firefighters. "It's incredible. Small group of guys did a good job," Clark said.

The Imperial Beach firefighters also raised approximately $3,600 for the Burn Institute.

Kahle's win was the second in a row for a Crown Victoria; Marcon was the 2013 winner. (Lavigne won the 2012 derby in a 1976 Lincoln). "Even after all that beating out there this thing still runs," Kahle said.

The Imperial Beach firefighters spent approximately six months working on the car. "I've been trying to find a car just to be able to participate in the event since November," Kahle said.

The Police Interceptor was obtained from the U.S. Marshal fleet; the federal law enforcement agency retires its vehicles after 97,000 miles. "We will try to get a car similar to this so that we can re-use all of our parts," Kahle said.

Kahle's status as defending champion may have an impact on alternating with Cooper. "We may wind up driving two cars," Kahle said.

Kahle graduated from Ramona High School in 1994 and then participated in the emergency medical services program at Palomar College. He lived in Fallbrook from 1999 to 2001 and was with the Rainbow Volunteer Fire Department during those years before taking a paid position for American Medical Response. During his Rainbow firefighting and emergency medical service tenure, Kahle worked with Austin, who has been with been with the Rainbow Volunteer Fire Department for 13 years.

Kahle moved from Fallbrook to Temecula in 2001. In 2002 he was hired by the Imperial Beach Fire Department as an engineer and paramedic. Kahle's first day on the job with the Imperial Beach firefighters was February 10, 2002, and within six hours of his first day of work he was back in Fallbrook as a member of a strike team fighting the Gavilan Fire.

He was also on a strike team later that year to fight the Pines Fire in Julian. During the October 2003 fires he was given station duties in eastern Chula Vista, and he was assigned to cover the Imperial Beach station while his co-workers were on strike teams for the October 2007 fires. Kahle spent a week in Northern California in 2008 to fight wildfires outside of Yosemite and in the Ukiah area.

Kahle continued to reside in Temecula until December 2012, when he moved back to Ramona on a property which has a cabernet sauvignon vineyard. His parents own Woof'n Rose Winery, and Kahle supplies grapes to supplement his parents' vineyard. Kahle also obtained sponsorship of two other Ramona wineries for the Firefighters Destruction Derby.

Ehren and Stephanie Kahle have two children: a 10-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl.

Cars participating in the Firefighters Destruction Derby exit the arena

The current Rainbow and Pala firefighters plan to reunite with Kahle at next year's Firefighters Demolition Derby.

"Now we're going to have to do it every year," Symmes said.

"We'll be back next year," Ballester said.

"It's a blast. We want to be back here again next year. Probably one of the most fun Burn Institute events, I think, of the year," Hearn said.


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