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By Joe Naiman
Village News Correspondent 

Firefighters were prepared to fight Lilac fire


Last updated 1/8/2018 at 12:18am

The firefighters of the North County Fire Protection District and elsewhere helped limit the damage of the Lilac fire both during the wildfire and prior to the start of the blaze.

The work of the fire service in fighting the fire included not only the fire suppression activity but also preparation for such an event.

"They certainly put it all out there on this one," said NCFPD fire chief Steve Abbott.

The knowledge of the Santa Ana wind condition allowed the fire department to be prepared for the possibility of a fast-spreading fire.

"We were really blessed by having a good detailed situational awareness of the weather conditions," Abbott said.

That also allowed pre-positioning from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

"We stacked up virtually every resource that we had," Abbott said. "Being on scene quickly helped quite a bit."

The operations center was staffed on a 24-hour basis beginning with the high winds which created the risk of a fire, so that staffing was in place when the fire started.

The dispatch agency which includes NCFPD was also prepared for a wind-driven fire.

"We certainly benefited from having the San Diego north zone North Comm being the operational coordinator and having a dropped boundary agreement," Abbott said. "It allowed for a very seamless, very rapid response."

(The formal name of the entity is the North County Dispatch Joint Powers Authority. The agency includes the Carlsbad, Encinitas, Oceanside, San Marcos, Solana Beach, and Vista fire departments and the North County and Rancho Santa Fe fire protection districts and is commonly called North Comm. Although the Valley Center Fire Protection District and the Pala, Pauma, Rincon, and San Pasqual reservation fire departments are not members of the joint powers authority they contract with North Comm for fire suppression and emergency medical dispatch services as does Del Mar's fire department.)

Mutual aid means that other fire departments join the local fire department to control a blaze. Automatic aid agreements, or dropped boundaries, send the closest available resource regardless of jurisdiction to a fire or medical incident. The assistance North County Fire Protection District firefighters received from other agencies was complemented with the NCFPD personnel's knowledge of the community.

"They were familiar with the area," Abbott said. "They were really able to maximize their ability of making a lot of individual saves on homes."

The 2007 Rice Fire utilized about a dozen engines from various departments.

"We had 15 times that in the same period of time," said Abbott of the resources fighting the Lilac fire.

Eight aerial units helped battle the blaze. "Having the air resources contribute was very helpful," Abbott said.

The county has three firefighting helicopters based at county-operated airports, CalFire and the U.S. Forest Service have aerial units based in Ramona and Hemet, the City of San Diego firefighting helicopter with night flying capability was among the aerial resources, and the county's agreement to use a San Diego Gas & Electric helicopter for firefighting needs was utilized. Camp Pendleton aerial resources also limited the spread of the blaze. "They were able to access military aircraft," Abbott said.

The firefighters on the ground worked to control the perimeter of the blaze. "Many of them took personal risk," Abbott said.

"Those resources were doing a lot of heads-up thinking," Abbott said. "It is a tough thing for them to be able to make strategic triage decisions."

Protecting lives is a higher priority than protecting uninhabited structures, and in the early hours protecting people at the Rancho Monserate mobile home park and elsewhere in the vicinity of where the wildfire started was also among the work of the firefighters.

"I'm just amazed that all these folks were able to get out of Rancho Monserate at the speed they did without any serious injuries or fatalities," Abbott said.

Abbott noted that clearing brush from structures gave firefighters space to position themselves as well as reducing fuel in the vicinity of structures.

"I can't overemphasize the value and the importance that defensible space played," he said. "All in all the properties that had good defensible space fared much better than those that didn't."

The firefighters worked until the next day to limit the burned area to 4,100 acres.

"They worked awful long hours," said Abbott. "It's tough to do a firefight when you're going into the second day."

The fire department's activities during the fire – and before the fire when the weather forecast indicated a fire risk – also included communication.

"I think that helped the community stay abreast of things, and that was huge," Abbott said.

Abbott noted that the Lilac fire showed the year-round risk of a wildfire.

"The idea of having a 12-month fire season is more and more a reality," he said.

After the fire was under control community members were initiating communication with the firefighters who saved property and also possibly lives.

"We are really touched by the level of support and appreciation that we have received, and we're very moved how the community is coming together for all of the fire victims," Abbott said.


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