CityBeat learned the hard way that if you're standing at the edge of a winding road, looking down into a canyon on fire, you better make sure you're not standing on the bend that turns outward, away from the canyon. The curve in the road forms what firefighters call a "chute" or "chimney," and within seconds the smallest blaze below will burst upwards, shooting out of the canyon, exploding over the road. In that situation, said Benecia firefighter Joe Thurin, "once you feel [the heat], it's too late."
On Wednesday, a fire truck from Thurin's strike team warned two CityBeat editors-and not a second too soon-to move away from a small fire that was feeding off vegetation near a camping trailer nestled in Pinecrest Park, located a couple miles outside Julian.
Pinecrest had, up until that point, remained virtually untouched, its collection of 180 vintage trailers from the 1950s and '60s-the park's distinguishing feature-tucked safely in a canyon. The strike team charged with keeping an eye on Pinecrest, as well as the sprawling Julian Estates, Pinezanita trailer park and an area known as KQ Ranch, had, earlier that day, cleared away dry brush from around trailers and made sure the area was secure before heading out to check on Julian Estates.
"We moved back to Pinecrest and things had changed," said Napa firefighter Scott Sedgley. "The wind was changing so rapidly, you think one area is secure then you'd move on," only to come back and find a scene quite different from what you'd left, he added.
Once the blaze started, the strike team, comprised of crews from Solano County, Napa, Cordelia, Benecia and Vacaville, had been ordered to withdraw from Pinecrest while the crew's chief mapped out the best plan of attack. That the park was located in a canyon meant two things: the wind was bouncing off canyon walls, creating a whirlwind effect, and any fire coming from the back of the park would be propelled forward, racing up through the canyon, looking for a way out. Loud pops coming from the trailer park meant propane tanks attached to the trailers were overheating and exploding, the product of which is a "huge fire ball" said Thurin.
When crews reached the entrance to the trailer park, they were met by an opaque wall of orange smoke that had reduced visibility to almost nothing. While four trucks disappeared through the smoke, Thurin waited up top to assess the situation until he got a call from the crews below telling him there was a structure on fire near the entrance with a propane tank about the explode. Thurin hopped in his truck and disappeared into the wall of smoke.
Thursday, on a 24-hour break at base camp in El Cajon, Sedgley and Thurin said they'd been able to save almost half the trailers along with Pinecrest's Recreation Center, and the park managers' home. Another home, however, was lost. It would be 2 a.m.-12 hours after it began-before the blaze was out. The crew stayed in the area until 8 a.m., when they were allowed to head to base camp.
The following day at 8 a.m. Sedgley said he expected his strike team would return to the same area. Till then, he was grateful for the chance to get some rest, take a hot shower and get the kinks worked out of his back by one of the volunteer massage therapists.
Later that afternoon CityBeat returned to Pinecrest Park, where round white trailers nearest the road, those struck by what Thurin described as "fingers of fire" shooting upward through the canyon, were reduced to melted heaps. Humidity and cold winds had, by that time, quelled most of the hot spots.
Untouched, however, was the white sign marking the entrance to the park, bearing a hand-painted message from owners Stan and Dian Cornette, describing proudly that nowhere else was there a campsite quite like theirs. Attempts to reach the Cornettes were unsuccessful.