Pete Scully, a battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry's fire protection agency, stands next to his camper-shelled pickup truck at a Highway 94 turnoff east of where Campo Creek turns south into Mexico, about halfway between Campo and Potrero. The hill looming on the south side of the road is completely blackened, the aftermath of a wildfire that roared through this area the day before, Monday, September 13. The dried leaves on the cottonwoods in the creek bed rustle in the afternoon wind. Each gentle puff of breeze carries the smell of soot and ash. All around, thin wisps of smoke rise from bushes still smoldering. Scully is a suntanned man in the neighborhood of 50. About six feet tall, he's wearing a yellow jumpsuit speckled with the red of fire retardant dropped from aircraft yesterday. On his head he wears a blue cap with CDF embroidered in gold letters. The sun reflects off his wraparound sunglasses as he recounts yesterday's fire, which was first reported around 10:00 a.m. "We could see the smoke, and we could see it was in Mexico. So I held off on the [large-scale] dispatch."
Instead, Scully rolled one truck out of Potrero, five miles west. "We went out to take a look and find out what the axis was going to be and whether we needed to take action. So we got in and saw that it was going to impact us. See this canyon back over here?" He points southwest to where Campo Creek, paralleled by the San Diego and Arizona Eastern railroad tracks, heads into Mexico. "If you follow that canyon down you can see where the fire started down in Mexico just at the bottom of that canyon."
Asked what started the blaze, he answers, "It could have been a migrant campfire because there is a lot of illegal alien traffic that comes through there. There are also some ranches down in there. It could have been something dumped from the ranch that accidentally started a fire. It's really hard to say, and we have no right to go into Mexico to investigate.
"Anyway," he continues, "the fire was burning well, but not running very rapidly. It started burning its way a little bit east and north up the ridge, just as we'd expect it to do. Again, it was fairly mellow burning conditions, like today."
Today it's a touch over 80 degrees with moderate humidity and a light, cool breeze blowing out of the west. When he realized the fire would cross the border, Scully "ordered 15 engines, four hand crews, and two bulldozers" from the nearby rural fire protection district, California Department of Forestry, the United States Forest Service, and local volunteer departments. "We felt pretty confident," Scully continues, "that we were going to be able to stop the fire along some truck trails up here." Scully points south across the road and up the hill. On the charred mountainside, it's easy to pick out the labyrinth of dirt roads carved into the hill. "Do you see that saddle up at the top, where that old scraper is sitting? What we were trying to do is hold the fire right along that ridge line."
But a few factors made it impossible to stop the fire on the ridge overlooking the border. "As the fire got to the ridgeline," Scully says, "between the wind that was generated by the fire and the upper-level winds, it greatly increased just as it hit the top."
Scully, who acted as incident commander throughout the blaze, was parked in his truck on a border patrol road just as the fire crested the ridge and intensified. "I was parked up by that old scraper, and it was literally rocking my pickup truck back and forth. There was burning brush flying through the air. It was probably 70- to 75-mile-per-hour winds. Then the next thing was this big sheet of fire that came up over the top of us. That's how it went from this mundane little fire to boom! It was the combination of the steep slopes, the little bit of ambient wind that was in the air, and the heat generated by the convection column of the fire. It all came together just right."
Jed Burt, a firefighter based at Gillespie Field, was on that ridge when the fire came up. A member of an eight-man California Department of Forestry "helitack" crew, he and his team had been dropped off on the ridge by a helicopter in the early stages of the fire. "When we were flying over," says Burt, standing next to the helicopter now parked at a makeshift heliport in Campo Valley, "The fire was still in Mexico and it was maybe 20 acres. It was really steep so there was nowhere for the helicopter to set down. We finally found a spot where we could set down that wasn't in the path of the fire, and they set it down, dropped the crew off, and went straight to the water draft" -- a pond in Cameron Corners -- "to try to keep it from jumping the border. And our crew started to cut some line there. But then the winds got a little too scary so they picked us back up."
After it crested, the fire started "running pretty hard" east along the ridgeline. "We were coming along holding it with engines," Scully says, "and we were actually being very successful until right around that area there where the scraper is. It had a little bit of wind coming this way [northeast], and it just drove it right across. The engines couldn't stop it."
A string of high-tension power lines running along the ridge hampered the firefighting efforts for a couple of reasons. "Not only can we not put aircraft dropping around the power lines," Scully explains, "but we can't work under the power lines because they can arc to the ground through the smoke. That happened four times yesterday. The smoke has enough moisture content with the soot and oils and such that it conducts 500,000 volts to the ground. It would turn you to toast if it were to hit you. So when we get heavy smoke production, we have to pull out from underneath the power lines."