June 24, 2008

Brisbane Residents Recover From Five-Alarm Wildfire

By Michael Manekin, San Mateo County Times, Calif.

Jun. 24--BRISBANE -- The morning after a five-alarm wildfire painted San Bruno Mountain a fiery orange, Brisbane Mayor Michael Barnes gazed at a Cal Fire helicopter dropping a tiny bucket of water onto a wall of smoke off in the distance.

The mayor and his family were among some 200 residents forced to evacuate during the Sunday night fire, and he was checking out the last gasp of a fire that some 12 hours earlier had nearly spelled disaster for his city.

"Seeing the flames along the ridge line and the wind, that's what made me nervous," Barnes said. "In the 20 some years we've been here, I've seen some fires on the mountain but never one like this."

He and his wife packed up the important documents in their home, their 8-year-old son grabbed his Legos and his baseball glove, and the family of three descended the mountain's edge to escape a home they hoped would still be standing by the end of the night.

The fast-burning fire ultimately charred an estimated 300 acres on two ridges, but firefighters scrambled fast with limited resources to prevent any homes or structures from burning down.

More than 200 firefighters battled the brush fire late into the evening, containing about 75 percent of the blaze late early Monday morning, authorities said. Between 50 and 60 firefighters kept at the wildfire throughout Monday, beating back 95 percent of the blaze by late afternoon.

That disaster was ultimately averted came as a pleasant

surprise to Cal Fire Battalion Chief Scott Jalbert, who knew as soon as he arrived on scene Sunday night that he and his colleagues had their work cut out for them.

"We had 100-foot flame length coming out of the canyon here and racing toward these homes," Jalbert said Monday afternoon from the base of Buckeye Canyon. "I've been doing this for 21 years, and I've never seen that kind of fire behavior on this mountain."

The firefighters on scene received the brief assistance of two helicopters that arrived shortly before dusk, but the dark of night forced the air assistance to retreat, Jalbert said.

Further complicating matters, Cal Fire wasn't able to provide planes and other resources to combat the fire due to an estimated 600 wildfires burning throughout the state Sunday, he said.

The saving grace on San Bruno Mountain was a combination of the nighttime fog that began moving in around 9 p.m. and the hard work of local firefighters, who burned backfires within 100 yards of mountainside homes to beat back the wildfire's flames, Jalbert added.

The blaze also came dangerously close to lighting at least a dozen PG&E towers that could have knocked out power for "a significant part of San Francisco," Jalbert said.

"Still, no houses were damaged, no one got hurt -- that was the best part," Jalbert said.

Merritt and Autumn Wider were among dozens of residents cleared out of their homes by loud knocks at the door from firefighters.

The couple was in the middle of a dinner party to celebrate their 16th wedding anniversary, but "we grabbed the cats, we grabbed the safe and we left," said Merritt. "It was clear what we had to do, and we did it."

The Widers, alongside the 200 other evacuees, were allowed to return home just before midnight Sunday, according to the San Mateo County Office of Emergency Services.

The last time city residents were forced out of their homes was when a flood threatened landslides along the mountain slopes in 1982, residents said.

This time around, the fire prompted many of the evacuees to book rooms in local motels or stay the night at friends' houses, authorities said.

Some two dozen residents sought shelter in the city's Mission Blue Community Center, where the mood was calm -- in spite of the terrifying view across the canyon, according to Terri O'Rourke, 47, a lifelong Brisbane resident who serves as the center's building attendant.

"There wasn't anybody who was nervous or crying or anything," she said. "But you should have seen it last night!"

Pointing toward the two ridges of the still-smoking mountain, she said, "All this -- from there to there -- was just bright, bright orange, and the sky was orange, too. It was really scary."

Just because the blaze has been contained doesn't mean there's nothing more to worry about, according to Battalion Chief Jalbert.

The lack of rain, high temperatures and abundance of dry northern winds in the region means that San Mateo County will be just as vulnerable to wildfires as many of the state's more notorious hot spots.

Jalbert said, "If this is any sign of what the fire season's going to be like, then it's going to be a long summer."

Staff writer Michael Manekin can be reached at 650-348-4331 or [email protected]


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