CARMEL, Calif. -- Lightning rarely strikes in the Monterey area, but in the early morning of Aug. 16 the calm skies of Monterey turned into what many called an epic lightning show that lasted over five hours. Photographers and residents flooded social media with pictures and video of the rare spectacle.
The Presidio of Monterey Fire Department received a call that morning requesting immediate support to help contain a fire near Mount Toro in Salinas sparked by the lightning. A crew of four firefighters from the PoM Fire Department responded and arrived on scene to battle the blaze dubbed the River Fire.
“It’s crucial to get fire crews on scene quickly to put the fire out, or to contain it as quickly as possible, so it doesn’t spread into a larger incident,” said David Wilcox, Presidio of Monterey deputy fire chief. “The location of the fire made it very difficult – the steep terrain and the fire being two-miles-in made it difficult to fight the fire.”
PoM firefighters were assigned to a strike team made up of five engines and a team leader that included Marina, Seaside, North County and Greenfield Fire Departments. The strike team works 24-hour shifts performing a variety of tasks from fighting fire to clearing vegetation to prevent fire from spreading.
Lt. Kythe Stillwell, PoM Fire Department, said the first day on the River Fire was a chaotic roller coaster.
Battling heat from the weather coupled with heat from the fire, PoM firefighters hiked miles up a steep hillside to provide hose, supplies and water to crews already on scene.
“It was so steep in some areas, we used the hose line to pull ourselves up the mountain,” Stillwell said.
The strike team battled the blaze on the mountain for several hours, but the fire was spreading rapidly -- making it increasingly difficult to contain. They were ordered off the mountain, but did not know a safe route to get down because of the spreading fire.
“The fire jumped the line and crossed over top of us, and ran down the hill about a 100-yards from our location,” Stillwell said. “We have to move now – we have to get to the area that’s already burned.”
“They [CalFire] didn’t know where to direct us to for us to get off the mountain,” Stillwell said. “So at that point they said we need to get these guys off the mountain. That area is lost, so there’s no reason to keep them up there.”
CalFire ordered a helicopter to airlift the strike team off the mountain. Already exhausted, they hiked another hour through rough terrain to reach the helicopter landing zone.
After being airlifted off the mountain, the strike team returned to their trucks and assembled at a staging area on Pine Canyon Road to consolidate and take a break to eat.
Shortly after arriving at the staging area, another fire erupted near the strike team.
“We started preparing hose for the next assignment and someone said look behind you. We all turned around and there was a big wall of fire coming down the canyon,” Stillwell said. “It came so fast it was already on the first house.”
The strike team dispersed to protect houses in the fire’s path. PoM firefighters stayed in place to protect the staging area, a farmhouse and other nearby structures.
Stillwell added, “we focused on areas where embers had landed or fire spots that popped up ahead of the main fire.”
PoM firefighters, along with the strike team, completed a variety of tasks and assignments that first 24-hours until their shift ended the next day.
“There were so many things stacked against us from the beginning … the weather and the terrain,” said Stillwell. “It was a very tough day.”
PoM firefighters said working with firefighters from local departments made it less stressful because they had already developed those relationships.
“It makes things easier when we go on strike teams with firefighters we’re already familiar with, because we already know each other and know expectations of each other,” said Lt. Jermaine McClain, PoM firefighter. “There’s a lot of trust involved when you’re on wildland fires. Especially when things go bad.”
Stillwell added, “when we go on outside fires, or they come on ours, there’s already common working knowledge about things like: how hose packs are put together or where equipment is on each vehicle. So we try to do some kind of standardization for continuity.”
PoM firefighters continued battling the River Fire and Carmel Fire for two weeks with the strike team.
Col. Varman Chhoeung, Presidio of Monterey commander said, “It’s a team effort to extinguish these big fires. I think CalFire does an excellent job coordinating all of the resources that come from all over the state. Our folks are honored to be part of that, and part of the effort to help the greater community.”
Chhoeung added, “I am extremely proud of our fire department and what they did. I wish we had more assets we could have dedicated, but we dedicated everything that we could.”