It was the hottest September on record. At noon the temperature in East County was near one hundred degrees, and the humidity was very low — the kind of weather that keeps firefighters near their radios because they know the day won't pass without at least one fire. But it was also the kind of weather that seems to inspire a certain pathetic soul to patrol the roads of the county in search of his next cheap thrill. Not much is known about him, except that he is sick and disturbed, and he doesn't mind taking chances with other people's lives.
At 1:00 p.m. he was driving on Highway 67, about halfway between Lakeside and Ramona. Along the east side of the highway was an extremely volatile field of manzanita, buckwheat, oak, and chamise which hadn't burned in at least forty years. Sitting on the seat next to this lunatic was an incendiary device so simple and effective that later, after the California Division of Forestry's arson investigators had recovered it, they refused to describe it to the media for fear it would be copied by other arsonists. When he was just north of the driveway leading to the Bowles Ranch, 300 feet up the steep hillside, the arsonist lit the fire bomb, flung it out the window, and drove away. Within seconds the entire roadside was covered with flames.
At about 1:30 p.m. that day, September 6, 1984, Captain Russ Crandall of the California Division of Forestry's Ramona Station, and Cindi Wedel, a seasonal firefighter with six years of experience, just happened to be driving north on Highway 67 after having their fire engine serviced at Monte Vista. They both have an almost unconscious habit of always looking for smoke, so it happened that they spotted the tall black column at the same time. "Looks like we got a fire," Crandall said. "Uh huh," Wedel nodded. It seemed to be three or four miles up the road, and grew larger while they watched. Crandall picked up the radio and called in the location to the CDF dispatcher. At noon that day, because of the extreme weather conditions, the CDF had gone into their immediate dispatch mode. That meant that ten engines, three air tankers, four hand crews, two helicopters, and a bulldozer from all over Southern California were on standby, ready to respond to a fire immediately. The CDF dispatcher automatically dispatched them to the location Crandall had given.
It took about five minutes for Crandall and Wedel to arrive at the fire, which was already five acres in size and spreading rapidly uphill. They could see that the Bowles Ranch, and any people unfortunate enough to be there, would be in serious danger. As they pulled into the driveway leading up to the ranch, they found that the gate across the road was locked. Wedel jumped out of the truck with a pair of bolt cutters and cut the lock. By that time the fire was burning on both sides of the road, and the road itself was engulfed in smoke and flames. But they had to get to the top of the hill if they were to have any hope of saving the ranch. "Looks like we're going to have to drive right through it, Cindi!" Crandall called.
Wedel nodded. She was wearing protective Nomex clothing, hat, goggles, and gloves. She clung to the back of the truck; Crandall rolled up the windows in the cab to keep the smoke out of his eyes, and gunned the heavy truck up the hill as fast as it would go. They were only inside the fire for a second or two, but even with the protective gear, the heat and flames left scorch marks on the skin around Wedel's goggles.
Three of the ranch outbuildings were already in flames, and Crandall decided they couldn't do anything to save them. But they had a chance to save the main house. They turned on their pump and began wetting it down. Fortunately there didn't seem to be anybody home; there was no path of escape, and without protective gear the residents would have been in trouble.
Within minutes the fire had raced on by the ranch. As soon as he could, Crandall got on the radio and said, "This thing's already ten acres and flat cranking. It's really moving out. We're gonna need more engines and hand crews right away." Crandall and Wedel did what they could to contain the fire to the immediate area behind the ranch, but it was hopeless. When the air tankers arrived on the scene — two S-4s out of Ramona, and B-4s out of Hemet, in Riverside County — Crandall asked them if they could hit the head of the fire with their loads of Phos-check fire retardant at least to slow it down a little. But one of the pilots answered, "No way. We can't even see the flames for all the smoke." They made several attempts to fly low enough to see the head of the fire, but it was impossible, and when they did finally drop their loads from their unfavorable altitude, the retardant dissipated in a useless mist before it even hit the ground.
At about that time, Jack Story, a battalion chief at the CDF's Ramona Station, was in his pickup en route to the fire. It was in his area of responsibility, and he would be the "incident commander." He had been following Crandall's conversations on the radio, he knew the area of the fire very well, and without even seeing it he knew it would be a bad one. By the time he arrived at the scene, perhaps fifteen minutes behind Crandall and Wedel, the fire was already twenty acres and spreading down the hillside behind the Bowles Ranch faster than a downhill fire ought to go. Story thought to himself, "We've really got a runaway here. If we can't even stop it going downhill, how are we going to stop it once it starts up the other side?"
There is something about a wildfire that causes panic. Everybody feels it. Animals run from it. Sometimes people run to it, for the same reason they flock to horror movies and roller coasters. Maybe when they're afraid, they know they're alive. But firefighters can't afford that kind of titillation. They have to stay there and deal with their fear, knowing they are being judged by their peers on how coolly they deal with it. Instead of yelling, they all make a point of talking quietly. Instead of running around aimlessly, they make sure their actions are slow and deliberate. They make a calculated effort to think and act as calmly and rationally as possible.
As for Jack Story, he keeps clipped to the visor of his truck a list of the logical steps to follow in times like this. It won't do for the fire boss to get on the radio sounding like a babbling fool. He studied his list carefully, then got on the radio and ordered the people and equipment he would need. There were now forty engines and twenty hand crew, either at, or en route to, the Bowles fire — perhaps 300 firefighter in all.
Behind the Bowles Ranch there's a fire road, the Foster Truck Trail. Since it's a dirt road, and easily eroded, access to it is restricted to property owners and the CDF. But like most of the other fire roads in the county it is used illegally by poachers, pot growers, dirt bikers, and woodcutters who periodically wrench off the gates, cut them off with acetylene torches or simply run them down with their trucks. When Jack Story drove out on the Foster Truck Trail it was a foot deep in silt, and he had to call for a water truck to wet it down before the fire trucks could drive on it without getting stuck. Several precious minutes were lost.
By this time, about 2:15, the fire was up to one hundred acres and spreading rapidly in a northeasterly direction. Story talked over the situation with a few other firefighters who knew the area well. He didn't like making spot decisions that could end up costing several million dollars without asking other people for their opinions. He studied the topographic map of the area, looked at the natural and manmade boundaries, then determined their strategy: they would try to keep the fire north of the Foster Truck Trail, south of Iron Mountain Road (two miles to the east). It was an area of more than 2000 acres, but Story felt that within those boundaries they would at least have a chance of containing the fire before it threatened the 150 homes in the town of Fernbrook, which was in the direct path of the fire.
Captain Ron Athon and seasonal firefighter Brian Hunter, both from the CDF's Witch Creek station east of Ramona, arrived on the scene shortly after Jack Story. They had been on several small fires in the past few days; all of them had been extinguished within a few minutes, and the two firefighters expected this fire would be the same. In the back of his mind Hunter was thinking the Jets were playing the Steelers on Thursday Night Football, and he would have to get back to the station in time to see the game. But as soon as he got his first look at the fire, he gave up all thoughts of football. The fire had backed very rapidly down the cool, east side of the mountain, while on the opposite side of the canyon the already dry but oily fuels had been getting warmer and warmer from the fire's intensity. As Hunter and Athon watched helplessly from their engine unit, the whole side of the mountain, more than one hundred acres, ignited spontaneously with a hug Poof! Athon called Jack Story. "The whole mountain just went," he said.
Even though the fire was headed to the northeast, the firefighters wanted to check it on its southern boundary while they could. To do this they would have to burn the brush along the Foster Truck Trail before the fire got there; otherwise the intensity of the head fire would carry it on across the road. This strategy is called "backfiring," and is done with hand-held drip torches containing a mixture of diesel and gasoline. Captains Athon and Crandall turned their engines over to their crews so they could do the backfiring themselves. The fires they set burned hot and fast — too hot and too fast. At one point, Athon had to turn and run as fast as he could to escape the flames. At another point, when the backfire Crandall was setting jumped the road, Crandall found himself and his engine trapped between two converging fires, and to save himself he had to leap into his truck and, for the second time that day, drive through the flames into an area already burned, where he waited for the fires to merge and burn themselves out.
So, in the process of backfiring, the fire had spread to the south side of the Foster Truck Trail. The backfire had been a calculated gamble, but this time the firefighters had lost. As it turned out, this was no great tragedy, however, since the fire could only burn into the shores of San Vicente Reservoir, and do little harm before it got there. But the head of the fire was now roaring toward the Boulder Oaks Ranch — a boys camp a mile and a half to the northeast.
As Jack Story drove over the Foster Truck Trail to Boulder Oaks, he was amazed by what he saw. He had been driving that road for several years and he knew every curve, tree, and rock. But after the fire had passed over it, burning almost 1500 acres in two hours, the terrain had changed so drastically that he couldn't recognize a thing.
At Boulder Oaks there was a station of the old Butterfield Stage Line, which had passed through there on its way to Los Angeles. The building was nothing but a pile of wood and a brick chimney now, but it was a historical site, and the firefighters were determined to save it. They cleared a wide line around the structure, using chain saws, axes, shovels, and rakes, to remove every scrap of vegetation, then backfired away from it. When the fire arrived, there was a wide enough buffer zone that they could protect the station.
All that afternoon the fire raged on to the east, teaching Story tricks he never knew a fire could do. After spending weeks in a classroom studying the ways fire is supposed to behave, he had to forget it all for this one. It was burning downhill faster than uphill, burning into the wind, burning in different directions on different flanks of the fire — all things fires generally don't do. Part of the reason, Story began to realize, was the proximity of San Vicente Reservoir. Lakes in Southern California are notorious for creating some of the worst firefighting conditions in the world. The cool air off the water combining with the hot air off the fire, and the numerous canyons all running in different directions, create wind conditions which are simply unpredictable. Often firefighters can use a mild, steady wind to help control a fire; but if the winds are squirrely, blowing in all directions at once, the effect is chaos.
The firefighters' efforts to turn the path of the fire away from the Boulder Oaks Ranch and Fernbrook might have been futile, except for one bit of very good fortune. Most of the area burning had been scheduled to be burned under prescribed conditions sometime in the future, and several of the containment lines were already in place. By cutting a few more bulldozer lines, the firefighters were able to tie into the existing lines. It saved them time and gave them the edge they needed. That evening the fire burned around the Boulder Oaks Ranch and moved on. If the lines held, it looked as though Fernbrook could be saved too.
Jack Story knew he would have to give some of the crews a chance to rest that night. This wasn't the only active fire in the state, and there wouldn't be fresh crews available in the morning. After the sun went down, the fire cooled off dramatically, and Story began pulling crews off the lines. A fire camp was set up at Dos Picos County Park, just a few miles away, and the tired firefighters straggled in to get something to eat and try to get some rest.
There's a kind of unwritten agreement among the several firefighting agencies in California that nobody can have a fire without inviting everybody else. In recent years the various government agencies have refined their mutual-aid agreements so that the organizational structure of all fires is the same, making it a simple matter to fill all the roles on a fire with personnel from any firefighting agency. That night in fire camp there were crews from the CDF, the U.S. Forest Service, the California Conservation Corps, city and county fire departments, and several correctional institutions.
Fire camps are something like a traveling carnival. Several trailers for headquarters and communications are brought in. An entire kitchen on wheels, capable of feeding 500 people, is set up. Electric generators, gas stoves, refrigeration trucks, portable toilets, tables, sleeping cots — the fire boss gives the order to set it up, and within minutes it's as if the circus just came to town. All the people involved, from the finance chief who orders the goods and pays the bills, to the inmate who stirs the creamed corn, have done it so many times that it's second nature. Only the location is new.
But as you might expect, nobody can wash, feed, and put to bed 500 firefighters, in a tiny park where just a few hours ago families were roasting hot dogs, without some confusion. Usually fire camps have a reputation for serving pretty good meals, but on that night the firefighters were in for a bitter disappointment. It seems that some unauthorized person had ordered the evacuation of Fernbrook — Jack Story never found out who — and a mob of county sheriffs, highway patrolmen, animal control personnel, and other county employees showed up to help with the unauthorized and unnecessary evacuation; then they descended on the fire camp looking for a free meal. They knew the reputation fire camps have for good food in plentiful proportions, and they were treated to a fine meal of roast beef, potatoes, and gravy. But when the hungry firefighters arrived in camp, most of the 500 meals were already gone. Jack Story patiently explained the situation to the cooks, who shrugged and said, "Well, dinner's over. But we can feed them breakfast." So, while the evacuation personnel in their clean uniforms picked their teeth and watched, the filthy firefighters were fed a hastily prepared meal of runny scrambled eggs. Brian Hunter ate his breakfast at 6:00 p.m., then commented, "You know, I never thought firefighting was particularly dangerous . . . until I had to look at those eggs."
Some of the older firefighters that night were surprised at how many female firefighters were in camp. On the fire line it's impossible to tell male from female when everybody's wearing protective gear. But in camp it became obvious this is no longer strictly a male profession. One older firefighter, who apparently never will get used to the idea, grumble, "Some of these girls come in off the fire line, and their hair is perfect, their make-up's straight, and their only dirty spot is on the bottom of their butt."
The crews in camp tried to get some sleep that night, but — typical of most camps — it was impossible. There were generators running, trucks coming and going, portable fire radios squawking, crews coming in off the fire, and others leaving. It was hot, and the only way the firefighters could stand it was to lie on top of their sleeping bags in their underwear; but then the mosquitoes attacked them. The best they could do was lie there and rest, and hope they weren't too exhausted when it was their turn to go back out on the line.
That night the fire consumed another 1000 acres within the boundaries Story had set. The hot spot was along the Iron Mountain Road, and some of the engine units patrolled that road, making sure the fire didn't hop their crucial northern boundary. Other crews ignited areas within the fire lines that hadn't been burned completely, so they wouldn't have to worry about them flaring up again in the heat of the day. It was a spectacular, if eerie, sight — the orange flames roaring twenty feet into the dark sky, then quickly dying down again.
Brian Hunter saw dozens of dead cottontail rabbits that night, victims of the heat and smoke. Usually dying animals will look for a hole to crawl into, but the rabbits looked as though they had fled until they couldn't take another step, and died in their tracks. Sometimes fleeing rabbits will catch on fire and spread the flames like live torches, and Ron Athon told Hunter that if he saw any burning rabbits to hit them with the hose before they had a chance to run across the fire line.
By dawn the fire was mostly quiet, but everybody knew that didn't mean much. The real test would come with the heat of the day. The lines on the south and west were secure, but Iron Mountain Road was hot, and the fire hadn't even burned into Mussey Grade Road on the east yet.
At ten o'clock the temperature was already over ninety. It was going to be another scorcher. The quirky winds started blowing again, and here and there the fire started flaring up. Around noon Jack Story was sitting in his pickup on Mussey Grade Road, listening to the radio traffic and watching the fire as it backed down the hillside above him. Some of the crew leaders were reporting sparks blowing across the line, and he wanted to watch for spot fires himself. The hottest section of the fire now was directly above him. along a bulldozed line tying the Iron Mountain Road into Mussey Grade. If the fire got away, it would be somewhere in there. But there was nothing he could do except watch and wait.
Then Story heard an explosion. "What happened?" he asked. Then he heard another explosion, and another. Looking up on the hill he saw several fires ten or twelve feet in diameter. These "spot fires," as they are called, are caused by wind-carried cinders and they make firefighting under dry and windy conditions almost impossible; though the main body of the fire may be contained, spot fires can erupt without warning several hundred yards away. One of the engine units called in to say they had a major spot fire over the line. "Say what?" Story replied in disbelief. Then another spot fire over the line was reported. And another, and another. Within minutes there was a huge orange and black mushroom cloud over the mountain. A firefighter from the Laguna Mountain Hotshots run elite group of U.S. Forest Service firefighters came staggering down the line, hunched over with fatigue. "As soon as it spotted, it was immediately four acres," he said. "We couldn't do anything with it. There was an engine unit right next to it, and they couldn't do anything with it. Nobody could have." It was an entirely new fire once again.
“Oh shit. Here we go." Story sighed. This wasn't the way it was supposed to happen. And he was the one responsible. What had gone wrong? He got out of the truck, leaned up against the door, took a wad of Beechnut chewing tobacco out of his pocket, stuck it in his mouth, chewed it up and spit on the ground a few times, took a deep breath, then got on the radio.
Story called the aerial tankers to knock the flames down long enough for the hand crews to cut a new line, and throughout the afternoon the planes made drop after drop. It wasn't a cheap way to fight a fire — the retardant costs one dollar per gallon, and with the S-4s dropping 800 gallons per drop, and B-4s dropping 2400 gallons, it adds up fast. But then firefighting isn't the kind of thing you would try to save money on. The cheapest thing is to stop the fire as soon as you can, no matter what it costs.
The pilots of the aerial tankers had to maneuver their big planes, with full loads of retardant, into the narrow canyons, flying at low speeds and fighting the winds, then position themselves low over the head of the fire, drop their loads, and pull out in time to avoid hitting the other side of the canyon. That's why the pilots are invariably described as madmen by the firefighters on the ground, who have nothing but admiration for their courage. Sometimes, though, the retardant drops can be very dangerous to the firefighters as well. Two thousand four hundred gallons of retardant, weighing twelve pounds per gallon, traveling at 150 miles per hour, can knock down trees, demolish trucks, and easily kill a firefighter on the ground.
Ron Athon had the misfortune of being in the path of two retardant drops that day. The first drop was high enough that it dissipated somewhat before hitting the ground, but he still described it as something like getting hit by 2400 gallons of red egg white. He was trying to wipe it out of his ears, nose, and underwear when he got hit by the second drop.
But that wasn't the worst part of Athon's day. Not even the hundred-degree weather, or the 1500-degree flames, were the worst part of his day. "The worst part," he said, "is the smoke. It gets in your eyes and your throat. You can't breathe. You can't see. It's like breathing acid. Just ten feet down the line it's clear, but you gotta be where you gotta be. So you just stand there and take it. That's the part of firefighting that most people don't understand. They'll be home watching it on the news in an air-conditioned house, but somehow that TV camera just doesn't capture the smoke."
Firefighters generally don't think much of the news media. The reporters and cameramen show up in their summer suits and loafers; the reporter goes to the fire camp and asks the information officer how the troops are doing, while the cameraman gets a few shots of grass burning along the edge of the road; then they go back to their station and tell the world how it was. "I'll be out there on a fire all day long," Athon said, "go home and turn on the evening news, and I can't believe they were at the same fire I was at."
Earlier that day, before the fire had flared up again, Story had sent some of the crews that had been in on the initial attack back to their stations to get some rest. Many of them had been on the fire for thirty-six hours straight, with no sleep. Russ Crandall and Cindi Wedel were among the first to go. But when they got back to their station, they found the place in pandemonium. The phone was ringing, the radio was blaring, there were strangers sleeping in their beds. The place had become a second fire camp. They took quick showers, drank some fluids to replace what they had sweated out, and tried to get a little rest. But sleep never came. Four hours after they'd been sent back to their station, Story had to call them out on the fire again.
At 2:00 p.m. Crandall took a crew out on the Iron Mountain road. With a dozen firefighters as exhausted as he was, he laid a half mile of hose line, uphill, through the rocks an rough terrain, in hundred-degree heat, "You get a second wind," Crandall said, "I don't know why. You just do what you gotta do." After they finished laying the new hose line, they collapsed and turned it over to another crew.
Fresh crews of inmates who had been resting in fire camps were brought out to cut the remaining sections of handline. The inmates had been bused to the fire from the four county and state minimum-security "honor" camps in San Diego — Rainbow near Fallbrook, Puerto La Cruz near Warner Springs, La Cima near Julian, and Morena near Lake Morena — and from various other work camps in Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Luis Obispo counties. The group made an odd sight, dressed in their orange jump suits, superbly conditioned, silent and sullen. They worked like brush cutting machines and could practically run through a wall of scrub oaks, clearing a six-foot line as they went. An aura of pride in their ruggedness, and their skill, surrounded them — they constitute the backbone of the CDF's firefighting force. They earn seventy-five cents an hour for doing the hardest job on the fire, but they say it's better than living inside a prison wall.
Several engine units patrolled the Mussey Grade Road looking for spot fires in the ravine below. Jack Story sighted a large, orange glow several hundred yards away, but it turned out to be just the sun reflecting off a tin roof. He was relieved. But minutes later the ravine began erupting in spot fires from cinders blowing across the road. The engine units went to work trying to extinguish them, but as soon as they would finish with one, two more would start. One of the spot fires gathered momentum and raced back up to the road directly toward one of the engines, spitting flames fifteen feet high. A firefighter stood on top of the engine, spraying into the flames until neither he nor the truck could be seen inside the cloud of smoke and steam. When it all settled, he was still standing there, almost miraculously, still pointing the hose nozzle into the fire.
Somebody yelled, "Spot!" and pointed to another large fire deeper in the ravine– too deep for the engines to hit. One of the hand crews raced down through the steep terrain, carrying hoses and brush-cutting tools, while the crew leader called over his walkie-talkie for helicopter support. "This Carruzo hand crew," he said. "We need a direct water drop on a spot below the road. The crew is laying hose down to it, but if it really takes off, they could be trapped at the head."
The U.S. Forest Service helicopter circled down to San Vicente Reservoir to fill its hundred-gallon bucket, and in seconds it was back over the spot fire. It dropped its load directly into the flames, and for a moment the fire sputtered in a cloud of gray steam. Then it burst into open flames again. The hand crew fought desperately to cut a line around it, while the helicopter circled back with water drops time and time again, until it was finally out.
If any one of the spot fires got away, the whole ridge to the east would go up in a flash. "That's no-man's-land out there," Story said. "It would suck up Kimball Valley and burn clear to Barona — Another 4000 acres—there wouldn't be anything we could do to stop it before it got to Wildcat Road."
Throughout the afternoon, different crews up and down Mussey Grade continued to call for the aerial tankers. "This thing's spotting four or five places at one," one of the captains radioed to the plane pilots. "We need you to knock some of the heat out of it along the road."
"I don't know," one of the pilots responded. "We're gonna be dropping so high, our accuracy's gonna be very limited."
"Whatever you do would be better than this," the captain said. "We're gonna lose this thing if we aren't real careful."
At about 4:30, winds from the lake began blowing up Mussey Grade Road. They were strong and gusty but they were at least blowing into the fire, and not across it. As the sun dropped below the ridge, the canyon cooled off and it looked as though the fire was over again, at least for the day.
All along the fire line, red-tailed hawks soared calmly in the orange sky. Now and then one of them would swoop down to snatch up a rodent fleeing the fire. For them, at least, the whole thing was a windfall.
By 6:00 p.m. Jack Story realized he had to get some sleep. That morning he had rolled up the windows in his truck and rested for a few minutes, but he hadn't really had any sleep in thirty-six hours. The fire was far from being controlled, but there wouldn't be much happening now until morning. He lived just ten miles up the road in Ramona, so he drove home, said hello to his family, took a shower, had something to eat, lay down, and waited for sleep to come.
But how could he sleep knowing just a few miles away there were 500 firefighters and several million dollars worth of machinery, for which he was responsible, struggling to save the homes and property of hundreds of families. Besides, the sun hadn't even gone down yet. His children hadn't even gone to bed. So he lay there thinking about all the little frustrations of the last two days. He thought about the evacuation of Fernbrook, and how he'd like to find the person responsible for that. He thought about the Salvation Army, which had fed the 150 evacuated residents and now wanted compensation from the CDF at nine dollars per meal; he would have to tell them no, he hadn't ordered the evacuation, and the CDF couldn't pay. He thought about the portable toilet contractor who, instead of going to the fire camp, pulled up on Mussey Grade Road with a trailer full of toilets, blocking the road so the fire engines couldn't get through, and said to Story, "Where do you want these toilets?" And Story told him what he could do with his toilets.
Sometime around 10:30 the phone rang. It was a private bulldozer operator complaining that he had been released from the fire and wanted to know how that could be possible if the fire wasn't even contained yet. "Nobody's released from this fire." Story said, and hung up the phone. He lay back down and was about to fall asleep again, when the cat jumped on his face. He was instantly awake. He looked at his watch — he had to be back at fire camp in less than six hours. Would he ever get any sleep?
He thought about the firefighters. Sometimes, he knew, he pushed them to the point where they couldn't take it anymore. Sometimes they just had to tell him, we've had enough, we're taking twelve hours off, don't call us. But up to that point, they always gave him everything they had. They could be making more money in almost any other firefighting organization — the seasonals were only making $250 for a 106-hour workweek. Why did they do it, he wondered? And the only answer he could come up with was . . . they were heroes.
Sometime after Jack Story had finally fallen asleep, his young son sneaked into the bedroom to have a look at his father, whom he hadn't seen in several days. He wasn't sure if he would get in trouble for being there, but as he moved closer and closer he worked up his courage. Finally, he wet his index finger in his mouth, stuck it in his father's ear, and said, "Are you asleep, Daddy?"
"No," Story answered softly. "Not anymore."
At 4:30 a.m. on September 8, when Story reported back to fire camp, things looked good. Along Iron Mountain Road and most of the fire's perimeter, the fire was dead and cold. The interior was sill flaring from time to time, but that was to be expected. On the morning news, the radio and TV stations were saying the fire would be contained in twenty-four hours, but that was just a little game the CDF plays with the media. If the CDF reported the fire as being contained, and then it got away from them, the forest service would look bad; so they try to keep the media twenty-four hours behind times. The radio stations were repeating whatever the CDF told them, and the TV stations were running two-day-old fire footage. But to anybody on the fire line that morning, the fire was over.
After the sun came up, twenty-mile-per-hour winds started kicking up out of the east. Ordinarily, that could have meant trouble, but in this case all it did was blow the fire back across the areas that had already burned. "We've got it now," Story said when he saw the winds. "We won." So imagine his surprise when at 9:00 a.m. Ron Athon called in from Iron Mountain Road to say, "We've got spots all across the line up here!"
"What are you talking about?" Story yelled back. "That's impossible!" Where Story was standing the winds were definitely coming from the east. But Athon was reporting winds from the south, and not at twenty miles per hour, but fifty to sixty miles per hour! It wasn't impossible, Story realized, it was a Venturi effect. When wind is forced into a narrow canyon, its velocity is increased, and in this case it was emerging from the twisted canyon and blowing across the ridge in a northerly direction.
Athon had the only engine unit on Iron Mountain Road at that time. He and Brian Hunter were still tired and sore from their exertions of the past two days, but they did their best to battle the spot fires until help could arrive. As the winds swept across the high ridges, lifting and stirring the bulldozed piles of ash and duff, the air became so thick with soot that the two firefighters couldn't see the road in front of them. When the hot cinders underneath the piles of ash became exposed, the sparks began blowing across the road and were instantly fanned into flames.
There was really no reason why the fire shouldn't have gotten away from them and burned another 4000 acres that morning, except that sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes you get unlucky, and in the long run it averages out. They were due for a break. Athon and Hunter fought the spot fires alone until five other engine units arrived on the scene. Together they struggled against the dry winds, soot, and ash until four o'clock that afternoon, when the Santa Anas finally subsided for the day.
That evening mop-up crews were brought in to patrol the fire until everything was cold. The fire camp was broken down and put on the road. The engine units went back to their stations to wash hoses and sharpen tools. The inmate crews were bused back to their prisons. The hotshot crews, who hadn't had a day off in two weeks, were given a few days to recover. Jack Story and the Ramona and Witch Creek crews went home and finally got some sleep.
So the Bowles fire was finally brought to an end. Although it was the biggest fire of the season, as big fires go it was only run-of-the-mill. But like all fires in this county, the potential for destruction was enormous. As for the arsonist, he's still out there somewhere. There's a $5000 reward on him now, though that isn't likely to stop him. He has already set twenty fires the CDF knows about, and perhaps twenty more they don't know about. He's probably driving around right now with a fire bomb tucked under his seat, waiting for the temperature to rise, the humidity to drop, and Santa Anas to blow. As he well knows, all the other conditions for disaster are already in place.