Hot day at Pine Crest Air Park. (original LZ at Crestline)
That Monday I was on my lunch break from my work in Yucaipa and riding my motorcycle into Redlands to the bank when I first saw the 20 mile distant massive spray of smoke pushed by the santa anas. In a few seconds I realized it was coming right from the Marshall Peak / Waterman Canyon location. I twisted the throttle to the limit that my little 125 Honda could muster and I headed back to work to clock out. I was on a mission.
Arriving at the Air Park, Andy and Nita were there along with a couple others including whack westfall. We were at this point still 2 or more miles crosswind of the blaze. Winds were gusting to 100 mph but averaged and mostly lulled to a much mellower 60. It was fascinating to see a news chopper parked beside the 1000' tall, miles long wall of smoke. It was easy to see the front of the main rotor was far lower than the rear. It was working hard and flying very fast just to hover. At one point I saw this huge 1000' tall 100' wide fire tornado that back dropped our view of the chopper. Not a good day to fly hang gliders I suspect. And a side note, the tornado was directly over what is now the Andy Jackson Airpark. Not that it matters. All areas here are vulnerable.
Whack suggested we go over to Andy's house, which was for sale, and was somewhere inside the smoke wall. I followed on my trusty 125 Honda.
As we got close to Andy's the bright California sunny day had become like night. A blizzard of ash blasted past. Andy's Palm tree was on fire and we were perhaps a mile downwind of the fire front. It was what I imagine it would be like in a war zone. I had this feeling that the fire would be unstoppable and it would burn all the way to Mexico 100 miles to the south. I was now more scared than any time in hang gliding. But I reluctanly followed whack who now said... "let's go north to the fire".
As we turned the corner on F street a block south of Northpark Blvd a cop was directing traffic to not go further north. Visibility was about 400' at most but with that all I could see was every house on the north side of Northpark engulfed in 100' tall flames. I saw no people. I worried that the grapefruit sized burning embers would find a gas source and my bike would die along with all these homes. I also thought for a moment that the cop might arrest us for not leaving like he was telling us to do. It's the dudley doo right in me I suppose. But that thought passed as I knew he was WAY too busy to worry about us.
Whack said... "let's help fight the fire. " I thought sarcastically "yea right."
But whack was out of his truck and running up to a house. The owner was on the lawn screaming and crying about his house burning. Smoke was billowing from a single crack on the roof. Whack climbed up to the roof and hollered to the owner to hand him the garden hose. Whack jumped up and down and kicked a hole in the roof and applied what little flow there was into the attic of the house. I took whack's lead and ran across the street to do the same to another house that had a similar roof issue.
I had a hose running, and tied around my waist and had found a way up to the roof. Nobody was home. Jumping up and down on the roof I could see in the back yard, upwind of me, a wooden shed beginning to grow flames that now were easily 10' high. Cops drove by with loud speakers announcing to evacuate the area. A fire truck soon followed using its own PA system telling people to not leave but to water their roofs. As the fire truck came closer I jumped down from the roof and waved them to stop pointing at the shed in the back yard.
It was amazing to see a crew of 4 or 5 firemen run the hose the 100' or more and tear into that shed both with water and axes. Half the shed lay across the backyard. All of the shed was wet and no longer burning. And the whole attack lasted about 90 seconds and they were again driving up the street.
My eyes now hurt really badly. In spite of having kept my full face motorcycle helmet on and visor down, the ash had made it almost impossible to keep my eyes open. Returning to the roof to attack the source of the smoke trail I had now made a personal mission, I had to lay on my back for a bit and with eyes open, poured water into them to help wash away some of the ash and soot. And my right heel was pretty bruised.
The remainder of the day was a blur both in memory and literally.
By evening at the LZ, the fire front was now just 1/2 mile to the east and a small group of pilots and distant neighbors had arrived to help out. We gutted his mobile home of furnishings and gliders and anything that could be carried. It was all piled into vehicles and departed to places unknown. Andy had no clue who had his property but trusted it would eventually show up again.
It did all come back.
Overnight a dedicated fire crew set up a point of attack on the upwind side of Andy's mobile home. At about 3AM as the flames approached the crew timed a backfire and water attack and in about 10 minutes they had saved the home at the Air Park. They then packed up to leap frog other crews to a point further west to the next area of need.
I heard later that 250 homes in the area north of Northpark Blvd had burned within a 2 hour period. The two homes that Whack and I had climbed onto didn't burn. But the street we were on turned out to be first line of homes that stayed mostly intact. We did play a small part as fighting the blaze was a massive effort by a lot of folks. What an experience.
And history repeats about every 20 years on average.
And then comes mud.