As the firefighters pulled out and back down the hill, the fire followed them. "It got established over here, and it was pushing downhill quickly toward these houses." Scully points at a half-dozen houses dotting the hillside on the south side of 94 at quarter-mile intervals. "So now I've got another problem: I have to protect houses with the limited resources I have. So I had to pull resources off and send them down for structure protection because that's one of our primary goals -- not that it would have made any difference. Because at that time the fire was doing what it wanted to do. About that time, that's when it came up into this draw over here."
Scully points to the creek bed curving up from the south and a sweeping turn to the east. "So we had fire running down that hill toward those houses," he points southeast. "We have fire coming up the creek, and the main fire was going like crazy right along the Mexican border. By that time, the fire had taken this little breeze we're feeling right now and turned it into 35-mile-per-hour winds. Because as the air heat rises, something has to come in and replace it. So it creates indrafting, and you just get a tremendous amount of wind.
"The wind was blowing burning brands and embers down the hill and across Highway 94, where firefighters were trying to make another stand. The fire started spotting across Highway 94 up here a little bit farther. We were able to pick those spots up really quickly. This hill that we're standing on -- it spotted across here, and we picked it up. So we were shipping people from this spot to this spot to this spot."
By the time the fire had reached the road, six fixed-wing aircraft and two helicopters were making retardant and water drops on the fire. Jed Burt and his helitack team were dropped off on Highway 94 "because we are real mobile," Burt explains. "We are seven guys, and we are really fast. We don't have to carry hose and stuff, and we can jump on spots that are, like, ten-by-ten spots that just start when an ember falls. We can jump on them faster than an engine company can, and we can knock them down before they get too big. We just cut line around it real quick before it gets too big where you would have to stand back, because it is so hot."
Fast as they were, Burt and his team found it difficult to keep up with all of the little fires ignited by flying embers on the north side of 94. "Spot fires," Burt continues, "were creating a lot of problems. The wind was blowing up all the embers, and they were being carried about 500 yards across. They were starting these little fires that were getting big. So we had a bunch of spot fires that we were trying to catch."
The problem was, a seven-man helitack crew is designed to work in conjunction with the helicopter it rides in. As the crew cuts fire lines with rakes, shovels, mattocks, and chainsaws, the helicopters make periodic 360-gallon water drops on the hottest spots of the fire so that the crew can cut lines around them. "We can function without the helicopter," Burt explains, "but it really works nicely when the helicopter is right there supporting the helitack crew. But our helicopter got sent to another area of the fire that was more critical. So we were left alone."
By one in the afternoon, the fire had invaded the United States along a three-pronged front. One was running east along the border fence, another was coming north up Campo Creek, and a third came downhill to the northeast between the other two prongs. Six houses were in its path. As Burt and his helitack teams worked the spot fires north of the road, Scully decided to try to stop the latter two prongs of the main body of fire at 94. "We actually held it at the highway for the longest time... Well, it seemed like forever, but it was probably only 15 or 20 minutes. But it finally spotted across by what we call Dogpatch, that little community that's just on the other side of the railroad tracks."
Firefighters supported by helicopters paralleled the eastern prong of the fire for a couple of miles, Scully says, "before they hooked the fire back over into Mexico." Once the fire was on the Mexican side of the border, the fence "acted as a heat barrier. It deflected the heat up. The folks who were going along that fence said the fence was a real benefit."
The middle prong of the fire, coming downhill just east of the point where Campo Creek crosses the border, threatened six dwellings on the south side of the road in an area known locally as Mountain Empire. Firefighters successfully defended all six of them, losing only one long-abandoned house. But, when the middle prong reached the road, firefighters weren't able to hold it, and it crossed the road into an old, near-empty trailer park and campground alongside the creek. Jed Burt and his teammates were in the middle of this park when the fire hit it. "We were trying to keep the fire out of the campground," he explains. "There were a few semipermanent residences set up in that area, so we were trying to do what we could there. But then the wind got behind it and it took off. So we just stayed in the campground because there was fire all around us. There was a huge dirt area inside the campground there, and so we were safe."
After the fire passed through the campground, the west and middle prongs of the fire joined and started moving northeast in the direction of Campo and Cameron Corners, straddling the train tracks. A chicken ranch about two air miles west of Campo stood in its path. Without their helicopter to give them a ride, Burt and his team started walking east on 94, where a sheriff picked them up. "We got a ride with the sheriffs back down the 94 toward the chicken ranch. Because we knew they needed help there."