Memories of the Rice Fire came crashing back to Fallbrook residents this week when a wall of flames and billowing smoke raced up the landmark hills known as Sleeping Indian in the southwest portion of the community.
The firestorm, dubbed the Juliet Fire, consumed 3,900 acres on Camp Pendleton, butted up to the Fallbrook border at one point and deftly triggered memories of what happened almost exactly one year ago.
For many, those memories from 2007 signify a particularly stressful time in their lives; for others, the stress has never subsided as they continue to rebuild their lives, homes and businesses after suffering devastating losses in the tragedy.
The statistics that have gone down in historical records tell only a fraction of the story: 206 homes, two commercial buildings and 40 outbuildings lost; 10,000 acres burned; $6 million in firefighting costs; and 469 hardworking firefighters battled the blaze. The entire town of Fallbrook was evacuated for the first time in its history.
There were no deaths attributed to the fire, but many individuals and businesses suffered, in myriad ways. And many valuable lessons were learned.
For the majority of Fallbrook residents, including our firefighters, it was a learning experience no one wants to repeat.
“We learned a great deal about evacuating a community,” said Chief Bill Metcalf, commander of North County Fire. “There are really very few communities across the country that have attempted to evacuate an entire community of 50,000 people. The process of doing that is very complex and I just hope we don’t have to do it again.”
Metcalf said he and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department got a firsthand experience of how long it takes to “clean out” a community and how difficult it is.
“Despite our best efforts, people disregard the request to leave,” he said. “And that distracts from firefighting efforts.”
And then there was the process of letting everyone back in…
“Most importantly, we all learned that we had not given enough advance thought to the issue of bringing people back home,” Metcalf said, adding that he felt the Sheriff’s Department was not given enough credit for the difficult job they performed.
“Those guys had the very, very difficult job of manning the road blocks <and> doing door-to-door evacuations,” he explained. “It was difficult; they had to stand there and deal with people who were understandably upset in a difficult time and situation. There is no telling how many lives were saved because of their activities.”
County Supervisor Bill Horn agrees.
“The Sheriff’s Department performed with distinction, including our Senior Volunteer Patrol,” Horn said. “The huge success of the evacuation was a tribute to great teamwork and set a national example.”
The fact that there was no loss of life attributed to the fire was “truly remarkable,” Metcalf said.
“Houses can be rebuilt, stuff replaced, but people’s lives can’t,” he said. “Our first priority is to keep people alive. When we do those things, we inconvenience people, we hurt businesses. There were some local businesses that didn’t survive the losses, but at the end of the day, nobody died. That is the bright spot in this.”
Firefighters suffered bumps and scrapes, Metcalf said, but no significant injuries were sustained by any emergency responders. He also credited the county’s ‘reverse 9-1-1’ notification system as being a tremendous benefit in the fire.
Metcalf, on the board of directors of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, has become a desired speaker all over the world. Fire associations throughout the United States and Europe have invited him to speak to their organizations and share the lessons learned in the Rice Fire.
“By sharing that information with folks around the world, we will help our colleagues in other communities and cities,” Metcalf said. “[The Rice Fire] was truly a once-in-a-lifetime/career experience.”
Metcalf said he stresses the importance of a community evacuation plan – one that includes strategies for repopulating after the risk subsides.
“That turned out to be the most complex issue, decision and process we had to deal with; the rest was firefighting on a mega scale,” he said.
Evacuating Fallbrook Hospital and the Skilled Nursing Facility was also an educational experience.
“Did I think the hospital was going to burn? No. The decision was made because we knew the power could be out for an extended period of time. The air was going to be bad. An hour or two is one thing, but if you are out of business for days, roads blocked for days, can’t get supplies in and out – it really was the best decision to clean it out,” Metcalf explained.
However, it was challenging reopening the facility. “The process of reopening a hospital is a complex process,” he said, referring to the recertification process that has to be achieved.
Metcalf said he also learned “not to be number 16,” referring to the fact that the Rice Fire was the 16th major fire burning in Southern California at the same time and the third major fire in San Diego County. The Witch and Harris fires preceded the Rice Fire.
“By the time Rice started, we were on our own,” Metcalf said. “We had our seven engines and we were on our own until noon. Usually, with our mutual aid program, we could have 100 engines here. We learned we need to be able to adjust our tactics based on what’s going on in the larger world around us.”
A lesson most of the community learned was that fire prevention measures are worth the time, money and effort.
“We have concrete evidence that fire prevention works,” Metcalf said, noting that the significant changes made in the fire code for building purposes in 2001 and 2004, after major fires, have proved successful.
“In the 2003 fire, of the houses that were inside the fire perimeter, there was a 17-percent loss rate, meaning 17 out of every 100 homes inside the fire perimeter were lost,” he stated. “Of the homes built since 2001, the loss rate was five percent.
“In the 2007 fire, the overall loss rate inside fire perimeter was 13 percent. The loss rate for homes built after 2003, when the code was revised again with higher standards, was only two percent.
“By building in a more fire-safe manner, we went from a 17-percent loss rate to a two-percent loss rate. It’s clear to me that fire prevention measures work.”
Metcalf said the biggest culprit was the fact that dry brush hadn’t been cleared from properties or that flammables like wood piles were too close to homes. It disheartens him, he said, how quickly people forget.
“If you drive through our community today, some people are still not keeping their brush and weeds cleared,” he said. “People have allowed the same brush conditions to occur and have allowed unsafe conditions that can not only affect them but their neighbors.”
Metcalf said he encourages residents to call North County Fire to report parcels that are presenting a danger in their neighborhood.
“With 18,000 parcels , it’s impossible for us to visit every one to see if a problem exists,” he said.
Supervisor Horn agreed there is work that needs to be done pertaining to vegetation management.
“I initiated <an> effort at the Board [of Supervisors] in May to develop and implement plans to clear and manage vegetation and the county is expected to move forward with those plans within months,” Horn said.
Since the devastating fire, improvements to firefighting resources within the county have been made as well, Horn explained.
“We saw the value of early action by air tankers and that is one reason we decided to spend $3 million to lease two super-scooper air tankers and a spotter plane from Canada that will be able to respond with overwhelming force to fires before they grow before they can spread into cities and communities,” Horn said. “They are based in Ramona and on call 24/7 for 90 days and will remain strictly for San Diego County’s use.”
“We now have a total of four helicopters dedicated to San Diego County – two air tankers here, plus two more from Cal Fire that are dedicated here,” Metcalf said. “We are stronger than we have been in the past.”
He went on to say that clearance has now been given for fire helicopters to fly at night as well.
“Here at [North County Fire], we haven’t added anything new; our fleet is in pretty good shape,” Metcalf said.
Knowing that Fallbrook is a high fire risk area, Supervisor Horn said the focus remains on being proactive about fire prevention.
“Last month,” he said, “the county mailed a new [Disaster Preparedness] brochure to more than a million homes in high-risk fire areas near canyons and brush that provides details about the Wildfire Awareness Guide as well as urging residents to register their cell phones with Alert San Diego, the county’s emergency notification system.”
It is hoped that a fire of this magnitude never happens again, but if and when it does, it appears that authorities will not only have better firefighting resources at their disposal but also be able to draw on the experience gained in the Rice Fire.
Who made a difference?
North County Fire Chief Bill Metcalf acknowledged the following as providing valuable help during the Rice Fire.
• Fallbrook Amateur (Ham) Radio Club: “They put people in our emergency operations center and helped us communicate. We are currently looking at ways to strengthen their involvement. This is a great group of community volunteers who function behind the scenes.”
• Fallbrook Chamber of Commerce: “They manned a phone bank and handled a couple of thousand calls a day from people trying to get information. Sometimes people don’t realize the depth of the Chamber’s commitment to the community. They did an extraordinary job.”
• Village News: “They kept their blog going with current information so people could access it via the Internet. We learned in this modern communications age, people’s expectation for real-time information has gone up unbelievably. People want info ‘on demand’ now. As our hometown news outlet, the Village News did an amazing job of communicating information to people.”
• Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton: “They deserve huge thanks in a number of ways. If not for Camp Pendleton’s willingness to open their gates and push evacuees out to the coast, we would not have been able to move people out fast enough due to the gridlock on the roads. They also sent a huge portion of their firefighting fleet over to help us and they were some of the first outside help to arrive. They also hosted the Main Command Fire Camp at Lake O’Neill. That took a huge burden off of North County Fire.”
• San Onofre Fire Department (privately operated by Southern California Edison): “They sent an engine and crew here to take care of our normal daily medical aid situations in the downtown area, out of our main station, for five full days at no cost. That was a huge contribution and an example of a corporate giant who did something significant to help.”
• Fallbrook Fire Safe Council: “They educated people and secured grants to do brush clearance. At the areas they cleared in the Santa Margarita Canyon, the fire burned up to them and stopped. Their efforts were significant in keeping losses down.”