Environment & Science

How Wrightwood was won: Dozers, defiant neighbors and the battle against the Blue Cut Fire

Bulldozer driver Wison Pate in Wrightwood, California on August 18th, 2016.
Bulldozer driver Wison Pate in Wrightwood, California on August 18th, 2016.
Dan Tuffs for KPCC
Bulldozer driver Wison Pate in Wrightwood, California on August 18th, 2016.
David Hoch's home was saved by fire fighters in Wrightwood, California on August 18th, 2016.
Dan Tuffs for KPCC
Bulldozer driver Wison Pate in Wrightwood, California on August 18th, 2016.
A chimney stack is all that remains a house destroyed by the Blue Cut Fire in Phelan, California, USA on August 18th, 2016.
Dan Tuffs for KPCC
Bulldozer driver Wison Pate in Wrightwood, California on August 18th, 2016.
A hillside destroyed by the Blue Cut fire outside Wrightwood, California on August 18th, 2016.
Dan Tuffs for KPCC
Bulldozer driver Wison Pate in Wrightwood, California on August 18th, 2016.
Damage caused by the Blue Cut fire in Phelan, California on August 18th, 2016.
Dan Tuffs for KPCC


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David Hoch had an uncomfortably up-close view of the battle to save the mountain town of Wrightwood Wednesday night. The Blue Cut Fire burned within a stone's throw of his home's front porch.

"I watched the fire come all the way down to the base of the mountain right here," said Hoch.

It took heavy equipment and hand crews to squelch the flames as they moved toward his and others' homes along Wright Mountain Road, about two miles from the heart of Wrightwood's commercial center.

"They had a bulldozer out here pushing dirt into the fire and they had the hotshot workers putting the fire out with a hose," Hoch said. 

Hoch said he spent Wednesday night sitting in the cab of his air conditioned truck. It was parked in the driveway heading in the direction of escape in case the flames were to jump the road.

A chimney stack is all that remains a house, it’s burnt out vehicle outside. Both destroyed by the Blue Cut Fire in Phelan, California on August 18th, 2016.
A chimney stack is all that remains a house, it’s burnt out vehicle outside. Both destroyed by the Blue Cut Fire in Phelan, California on August 18th, 2016.
Dan Tuffs for KPCC

Firefighters pleaded with Hoch  to leave. But he said he wouldn't. And he wasn't much worried what people thought of him deciding to stay.

"I don't care either," Hoch said.

U.S. Forest Service Capt. Ryan Johnston was assigned to oversee the Wrightwood sector of the fire.  

"We had put in dozer lines coming off the top off of Lone Pine Canyon Road down to Highway 2 to kind of cut off the community from the fire," he said.

"The dozer line held."    

But that activity late Wednesday was in preparation for a bigger battle to come early Thursday morning as downslope winds pushed the fire toward Highway 2 — one of the last barriers before it reached homes in the community.

"We had crews along Highway 2 to engage if it had spotted across," Johnston said.

For the most part, they were able to secure the slope along Wright Mountain Road and keep the fire south of the highway.

Contract bulldozer operators on the front lines

Late Thursday afternoon, a line of private contractors' bulldozers were parked along Highway 2 awaiting duty on the slopes outside Wrightwood.

The portion of the fire covering Wild Horse Canyon and Wrightwood and Lone Pine Canyon had seven bulldozers assigned to cut the fire lines, or to reopen previous dozer lines that might have  grown over with brush.

Bulldozer driver Wilson Pate in Wrightwood, California on August 18th, 2016.
Bulldozer driver Wilson Pate in Wrightwood, California on August 18th, 2016.
Dan Tuffs for KPCC

"Dozer operations are always highly risky, 'specially when we are in steep mountainous terrain," Johnston said. "It's all in the comfort level of the dozer operators," Johnston said. He said the firefighters pre-scout the lines.    

Dozer operator Wilson Pate said the steep ridges they were being assigned were so risky, two other operators had already turned down the work.

"So we're going to give it a try and see if we can get on top," Pate said.

Johnston confirmed that some private bulldozer operators refused their assignments because they were not equipped with the kind of track that works best on steep narrow ridges.

"We switched them out and gave them a different task," in safer terrain, he said.

The fight to keep Wrightwood from burning also involved dumping water and fire retardant from the air.

Captain Ryan Johnston of the United States Forest Service stands by as a helicopter replenishes its water supply at the Hillside Community Church in Wrightwood, California on August 18th, 2016.
Captain Ryan Johnston of the United States Forest Service stands by as a helicopter replenishes its water supply at the Hillside Community Church in Wrightwood, California on August 18th, 2016.
Dan Tuffs for KPCC

A portable well that was like a giant plastic trash bin was set up Thursday behind the new sanctuary of Hillside Community Church in Wrightwood. It was there for helicopters to quickly dip giant buckets or straws into and pull out hundreds of gallons of water to dump on the fires.
    
Helicopters cycled in and out of the pool every three minutes, as the pool was refilled from a water truck parked nearby.

Wary community supports and irks fire crews

Fire authorities and others have said those who stay behind can imperil themselves and the firefighters who must shift their priorities from fighting fires and protecting empty homes to protecting lives.

But Hoch was far from the only Wrightwood homeowner to stay in town after mandatory evacuations were issued.

Hillside Community Church designed its new buildings a couple of years ago so they could double as a fire support center, said church elder Brad Phillipson.
    
"We try to give back to the community," Phillipson said. "We literally set up this church to do this operation."

Many of the church's board members are active or retired firefighters, so when they were planning a new campus, they laid out the plans so that the parcel could accommodate firefighting trucks and the portable water pool. Elder Phillpson, himself a former firefighter who freelances as a private fire investigator, wore firefighter clothing and red fire helmet as he invited visitors into the church lobby and its coffee bar, called "He Brews."

Some of those who did not evacuate when asked stayed behind to volunteer at the local Jensen's Finest Foods grocery store to make hundreds of sandwiches for firefighters and other fire workers.

 
Pegi Chilton, Assistant Manager  of Jensons takes a break from her work to reflect in Wrightwood California on August 18th, 2016.
Pegi Chilton, Assistant Manager of Jensons takes a break from her work to reflect in Wrightwood California on August 18th, 2016.
Dan Tuffs for KPCC

The store has a contract with the fire service and is paid to provide the food, but sandwich-makers Nancy Martinez and Pegi Chilton were volunteers who also drove them out to drop-off points in the fire zone to be relayed to hungry fire crews.

"Every single day there's a fire, we'll be making sandwiches, 200 at a time," Martinez said. "We give them so much food to sustain them."

"A lot of us  we live in this community and we like to help out however we can," Martinez said.

"I believe the majority of our town did evacuate," Martinez said. "Anytime you go into a small community, the communication is just great. Everybody looks out for one another, and they check in with neighbors, and so we try to  do the best we can to not be in [firefighters'] way."

Nancy Martinez watches the plume of smoke from the Blue Cut fire approach Wrightwood, California on August 18th, 2016.
Nancy Martinez watches the plume of smoke from the Blue Cut fire approach Wrightwood, California on August 18th, 2016.
Dan Tuffs for KPCC

Martinez said the stay-behind population was experienced enough to know when to leave. Neighbors stay in close touch with each other by phone and social media.

"Not everybody goes. We didn't go," said Chilton.      

As she spoke Thursday afternoon in the Jensen's parking lot they noticed with some concern a change in the wind and a sudden new plume of smoke off on a distant ridge. It was just a reminder of how quickly fire behavior changes and the risks they incur staying behind when the evacuation order is given.