the Wildomar Fire

I thought I noticed a bit of smoke far to the south on my afternoon drive home from work, but there was nothing on Twitter when I first checked, so I assumed it was just clouds. Later on, I checked again and saw that there was indeed a fire and that it was somewhere in the Wildomar Off-Highway Vehicle area.

My schedule was packed during the day, so the first chance I had to get down there was around 8 at night. I figured there was a real risk of the 74 being closed somewhere in the Cleveland National Forest, or at least being bogged down with support vehicles, so I chose to head east along the 91 and then take the 15 south to Lake. As soon as I came up to the bend right after Lake turns into Grand, all I could see to the south was bright orange.

I think that the temperature change at night had caused the cold air above Lake Elsinore to be trapped under the air coming out of the National Forest, with the ridge to the west of Lakeland acting as a barrier. The smoke from the fire, I guessed, had been trapped in the valley along with the cold air, and was much denser than it would have been during the day. The result was a whole lot of diffuse orange light that made the fire look significantly more menacing than I was expecting.

Whatever the cause, it was otherworldly.

I headed south along Grand, trying to find a good pull-off to the right to get some pictures. The further I drove, the more cops and fire crews I saw, and the more it looked like the fire was up among the expensive-looking houses in La Cresta.

After consulting my map, I headed off towards an entrance more towards the south of the community, near Sylvan Meadows (which I really do need to get back to sometime in the daylight), where I figured there would be a much lower chance of roadblocks or of getting in the way of emergency vehicles.

Sure enough, it was deserted. I kept driving towards the fire, but would inevitably end up driving away from it along one of the overly-curvy roads in the area, and have to double back or make some other strange maneuver to get back on course.

Eventually, I crested a hill and was greeted with a sudden, striking view of the fire.

I pulled off to the side of the road and set up. There were a few other cars parked in the dirt, with people sitting inside or on their hoods, watching the fire burn.

Even though night had fallen, there was still a single-rotor helicopter up, alternating between hovering and circling above the fire. I assume it was some kind of observer since I never saw it make any kind of water drop.

From this distance, the fire was completely silent, but it dominated the view. The smoke deadened sounds, so there was an eerie quiet to the scene, broken only by the distant, faint thud thud thud of the heli’s rotors when it banked.

After a few minutes of watching and filming, I packed up and moved closer.

Calle del Lobo, the road skirting the Cleveland National Forest to the northwest, was teeming with activity by the time I arrived. I pulled off to the side of the road and got out.

I was amazed that anyone not on official business was allowed this close to the fire. Things were on the edge of chaos: residents were quickly leading horses into trailers, turning on sprinklers, throwing hoses on their roofs, and cramming cars, trucks, and trailers full of various boxes, bags, and oddly-shaped belongings, all while ash drifted lazily down from the sky. Everyone who was moving did so with purpose and clear intent; the only signs of near-panic I picked up on were from people standing still, but I got the sense that any sudden change would send the gathered crowd over the edge.

You could tell how long someone had been there watching the fire by how thick the layer of ash on their car was. The bright red paint of a pickup across the road stood out, so I figured they hadn’t been there too long. The freelance journalist that I parked in front of had to wipe dust off his windshield in order to make sure his “PRESS” sign was visible, so I stopped to talk to him.

He had been covering the fire since daylight, I forget the exact time. Main Divide and the Truck Trail running through the forest were off-limits now, but he said that he had been down them a few hours prior, before the Forest Service had closed them off. I asked about containment, and he said that the last estimate that he had heard was 0%. That seemed about right; a great deal of the local firefighting equipment and personnel was up north in Napa fighting those fires.

I lugged my camera and cheap tripod down the road a bit, away from the trees blocking my view of the fire, raging brightly and still silently on the other side of the ridge about a third of a mile (500m) to the northwest. Aside from the helicopter, I couldn’t see any activity attacking the fire. It was certainly out there somewhere, but there weren’t the headlamps or fire trucks I was accustomed to seeing in these kinds of situations.

A van pulled up next to me and a two men got out and very quickly began setting up expensive-looking camera gear. I looked at my cheap plastic tripod and then at a lighting setup one of the men had. It looked like it cost as much as my entire camera, so figured they were professionals of some kind. Someone made a comment about the other’s gear – it was probably me, but I don’t remember – and we struck up a conversation.

The pair were from a local Spanish-language TV station; either I forgot which one, or they never said which and I didn’t think to ask. We chatted for a bit as I took a few pictures and recorded some video of the advancing flames.

I remember cursing my past-self for not spending the additional $200 to get myself the a6000 kit with the additional 55 – 210mm telephoto lens instead of just the single 16 – 50mm lens I was using now. The fire was very close, but I was still zoomed in as far as I could go and wasn’t getting the close shots that I wanted. The cameraman said that he actually had the same camera himself and would have let me borrow the lens if he had just brought it with him. I thanked him, but it wasn’t much help at the time. I went out and bought the lens the next day.

The anchor, while his cameraman was still setting up, walked up and down the street trying to find someone who was willing to be interviewed. It seemed like everyone he spoke with was quite talkative until it came time to step in front of the camera, and then their vocabulary was suddenly reduced to “no”, “sorry”, and nervous giggles. I felt a little bad for him, but my Spanish is limited to about 20 words, most of which are either numbers, colors, or curses, so there was no way I was going to volunteer.

Every so often sirens would blare out and some emergency vehicle would come rushing down the road. Generally it was a bright red firetruck or a police SUV, but this time there was a deep rumbling in the ground, so I looked up.

It was two 18-wheelers carrying bulldozers. I remember thinking that things must be getting pretty serious if they were calling in equipment like this. A few county firetrucks had trundled off of the road, towards the ridge, but there was still no sign of firefighters up in the hills. After some time, the bulldozers were also offloaded and drove off into the distance, I assume to create a break in the vegetation. It must have worked, because no structures were lost in the fire, even the homes right on the other side of the ridge that was burning.

As the newscaster began to practice his narration and called his station, I realized that something had changed. Things were a little quieter and my throat was hurting a little more. The was more ash on my jacket and hair than I thought there should be. I realized that, for the last few minutes, when I went to snap a photo, I had actually been zooming out instead of cursing my lens’ lack of focal length.

At the time, none of that made any real big impact on me, but it should have. It’s quite easy for me to understand now how fires can creep up on people.

Fewer people were talking now than before; a few even left altogether. I was zooming out further and further to get a shot. The cameraman said something to the effect of, “it’s getting close”. Just as I realized that I had zoomed almost all the way out, the wind picked up and the fire crested the hill.

More and more people got in their cars to leave, and I started to get my gear ready to go. No evacuees were left at this point, just press and onlookers. I wondered why any of us were still allowed to be here.

The wind began to blow harder, and towards the up-hill end of the valley on the far side of the ridge in front of us, fire tornadoes began to form, violently whipped taller and taller as their heat sucked more and more air in towards the fire.

They were absolutely mesmerizing to watch.

Prior to this point, I had been slipping in and out of the same kind of zen-like mindset that comes from staring at a grill or campfire; a feeling of mindlessness and security. Now, however, I was still entranced, but something malevolent had crept in. I distinctly remember thinking that this must be what it feels like to be starting at anglerfish or some other kind of predator that lulls its’ prey into a false sense of safety; a feeling of calm with a slight but very distinct undercurrent of run.

More red and blue lights came down the road. This time however, a voice called out over a loudspeaker: “this is the Riverside Country Sherriff’s Department,” it began. I knew what was coming next, and folded my tripod up. “This area is under mandatory evacuation. Please get in your cars and leave the area immediately.” Without bothering to stop filming, I waved goodbye to the cameraman and newsanchor, walked back to my car, packed up, and was gone within a minute.

Even with the fire quickly bearing down on us, nobody panicked, nobody ran. Everyone was polite, orderly, and did exactly what they needed to. I must say that I was impressed by how composed everyone was. I’ve been shown time and time again that Hollywood disaster movies have the wrong impression about how ordinary people act in the face of disaster.

The drive home was uneventful, except for taking the long way out of La Cresta. I stopped at an intersection, turned off my car, and got out. There was nobody left evacuating, no press, no spectators, and no emergency vehicles. There weren’t any news vans or aircraft making water drops. Smoke had rendered the sky featureless and silent. Dogs everywhere were panicking, but the smoke was muffling their barks and howls. Small bits of ash were gently floating down to the ground.

Somehow, even with the muffled howling in the distance, things felt peaceful.