Jul 19, 200603:12 PMThe Life
The Thompsons and the Sawtooth Complex Fire
Jul 19, 2006 - 03:12 PMJohn Thompson is a PSL Art Director. His wife Lana wrote this firsthand account of the fire:
Sunday, July 9 - We experienced a rather unusual and dramatic lightning storm early this morning around 6:00 a.m. After rising, we noticed smoke coming up from the ridge in Yucca Valley. We saw more smoke near the ridge in the Big Morongo Canyon area, in central Morongo.
Firefighting aircraft flew overhead on a regular basis for most of the day.
Monday, July 10 - Smoke had diminished. We assumed that the fires had been extinguished.
Tuesday, July 11 - I drove down to Palm Springs and did some shopping at Target. In order to begin a project in the guesthouse, I purchased five 25-gallon Rubbermaid containers for storage, along with a case of water. I met John for lunch at Las Casuelas in Palm Springs, one of our favorite Mexican restaurants. We walked out of the restaurant around 1:30 p.m. to see a huge plume of smoke rising to the east in the vicinity of the high desert. I immediately headed for home and called Don Lindberg to see if he knew where the fire was. Don said that Pioneertown was burning and not to worry as it was a long way from Morongo Valley. It was devastation in Pioneertown where 50+ homes were burned down due to a sleeper fire that had awoken in growing winds on a day of 100° temperatures in the high desert.
The fire was still raging and consuming acreage. When John came home we discussed the possibility of packing some things "just in case."
Wednesday, July 12 - We could tell from the position of our house that the smoke was now not just "up the hill" so we took a drive to the highway to get a sense of the emergency. John called in to work to say that he needed to watch the fire approaching our home. We saw flames now in the ridges to the east of us in Morongo. We decided to have breakfast at the Morongo Café before returning home. We spoke to a couple at the table next to ours that had been awakened at 1:00 a.m. and had been asked by authorities to evacuate their property in Big Morongo Canyon. They were able to pack up a motor home and drive it down the hill to the low desert.
No one was unduly alarmed, just very concerned. We got back home after observing more flames even closer to our house on the top of ridges above Juniper Street. Smoke was very visible from our house and we began to realize that things were getting serious and the fire was heading west toward us. We decided to start packing up. Who would have guessed that those Rubbermaid containers I purchased yesterday would be so invaluable for a different purpose? We packed up everything of value and importance that couldn't be replaced (over 70 pieces of artwork on our walls), as well as clothing, my parents' silver, other childhood collections (Barbie and doll collection, baseball cards, Beatles memorabilia) and important papers.
John and I were very efficient in our efforts even though our pulses were racing and the adrenaline was flowing. I called my oldest son, Scott, who lives in Palm Springs and asked him if he could drive up to help us. Scott and Jean, his fiancé, showed up and we filled all 3 vehicles. John called our friends, Chris and Linda Heiser, who live in Sky Valley near Desert Hot Springs. They told us we were welcome to come and stay with them to escape the fire. Thank goodness, a place to go that wasn't too far away. At around 4:45 p.m., we had a visit from a Sheriff who drove to the back of our property, stopped, and asked us if units could come and park on the property. He said they were concerned that the fire snaking down the ridges to the northeast would come around the west of our little valley and over the nearest hill by our house. We were very thankful knowing help was coming so we decided to load up the family, our 2 kitties, Sylvester and Midnight, and head out of town and down the hill. As we left our home in Mockingbird Valley there were at least 10 engines mobilizing, ready to come up the road. Wednesday night was spent with Chris and Linda. The Heisers were our lifesavers. Our kitties were so good, considering that they had never been out of our home. That evening we nervously watched from the low desert, observing the red glow and tremendous clouds of smoke coming from the huge fires in the high desert. The Sawtooth Fire was usually the number one lead story on the news, sharing airtime with the Israel/Lebanon fighting.
Thursday, July 13 - John woke up and used the cell phone to call our house. He got a ringing signal! What a relief. We drove back to Morongo Valley that morning and all was well at our house. As a matter of fact, the property was occupied all night by a unit of firefighters from Fontana and San Bernardino. They had just gotten a call when we drove up, so we barely had time to tell them thank you when they were off. They told John that our house was in good shape, easy to defend, as we had done a good job with the property. They did move all of John's neatly stacked firewood on 2 sides of the house to a location away from the structure and mentioned that we should cut back the scrub oak that was growing near our propane tank. The crew had seen many tanks blow up in Pioneertown. We were ready to sit back and see how the fire was doing in town and hopefully unpack the vehicles. We started to bring things back in the house and even proceeded to hang up some clothing when we saw that the plume of smoke and fire just over the hill to the north of us might indeed be ready to breach the hilltop. The smoke must have been 300' high or more and looked very menacing. We took another drive and spoke to a unit from San Diego that told us the Sawtooth and the Millard fires were ready to merge and that we should evacuate the area. We started to panic (again), returned home and repacked everything back into the vehicles. We even packed some additional items we had left the day before.
I didn't want to leave but John said we had to. We took the kitties and went back down to Chris and Linda's. That night the red glow and the enormous cloud of smoke rising from the top of the high desert mountains looked even worse. I worried that we had not left any outside lights on and the firefighters wouldn't find our home.
Friday, July 14 - Chris cooked us breakfast again even though we were very anxious to drive back to Morongo to see what might have happened overnight. Before we left I caught a report on the TV. I could see exactly where the reporter was standing and the neighborhood behind her (ours) was filled with smoke. I called Don Lindberg (he lives up against a steep hillside near us) who had also evacuated his neighborhood in Morongo last night. He was at home, relieved that they had saved his house, even though there were still flames on the hillside directly behind him. He said he would drive over to our house and call us. The not knowing was excruciatingly nerve-wracking. Don reported back "Halleluiah," our house was still there as well! We decided to leave the kitties at the Heisers for the day and take one vehicle back for now. When we got up to the top of the grade in Morongo and turned off the highway, there were perhaps a dozen media trucks on the corner of Hess and the highway. We drove by and headed for our little valley. The hills were black as we got nearer to our house. Now we could see smoke coming up. We drove by numerous fire vehicles and got to our road. A white sheriff vehicle came up behind us. I told John, "He wants us to stop." John just kept driving until the sheriff put on his lights and siren. John stopped, got out and said, "That's our house," and pointed. I got out and started walking the rest of the way. The hills on both sides behind our house had been back-burned early that morning. There were still several open flames, some burning 50' high, but our house was safe! The blackened hills are about 300' from our house. Just after we parked, a Channel 2 local news van pulled up. Two people came out and began talking to me. There were helicopters flying overhead and planes doing Phos-Chek (flame retardant) drops in the next hill beyond us. Not long after a Class 3 unit #BE9 from Mentone parked in our driveway. The captain's name was Will Jennings. He extended a hug to me and said that we would "be alright." We offered to provide all of his men shade and comfort as best we could. John and I were both very thankful that they took us up on our offer. We opened our house to them and they were very appreciative. What we learned is that early that morning they had bulldozed a road around the back of all the houses in Mockingbird Canyon and had done a back-burn to stop the fire from coming down to the houses. Units were arriving on a regular basis all during the day and the same Fontana unit from Wednesday night showed up to spend some time with us. Another Palm Springs CBS TV van pulled up, the reporter and cameraman got out and spoke to all of us about the situation here. Tom Tucker, the reporter, asked me if he could film me for their broadcast on the fire. I looked a mess but agreed to speak to him on camera. One of the questions he asked me was, "Well do you think you just dodged a bullet?"
Just beyond the hill nearest to our house the "Battle for Mockingbird Valley" was continuing. It was a campaign to burn off the vegetation in order to stop the Sawtooth Complex fire before it met up with the Millard fire which was roaring in the northwest near Whitewater Canyon.
[Click thumbnail photo to enlarge.] There was a chain of command in the operation, the front end was watching from a clearing on a near hillside, a bulldozer was up on the adjacent hillside running more firebreak lines (almost straight up the hillside) and although unseen from our view, there were hand-crew firefighters (lots of times they use convicts) igniting backfires in the canyon. The smoke would rise way up into the sky to the west and the water-dropping helicopters (several different models) and the Phos-Chek planes were working to keep the burn under control. At least once we could see lots of flames and Captain Will said, "I wish they wouldn't scare us like that." Captain Will explained to us what was happening; he shared his expertise and 25 years of experience. I could hardly watch, heart beating wildly in the heat, especially with 50' flames now visible surrounding a structure on the hill.
John, as he understood more, was mesmerized by the operation. He thought it was like a general attacking a foe. Captain Will was so kind, informative and knowledgeable that he really helped to soothe our raw nerves. At one point he got a call from his superior that they had to reposition. We were devastated that they were leaving, but it wasn't 5 minutes before they came back. His commander relented when Captain Will explained that our location was a pivotal position. Our house was without power (in 105° temperatures), so we hung out on the porch with the "guys" all afternoon. At least we didn't have to wear the protective gear that the firefighters had. We watched the most spectacular air attack to this fire that few have ever witnessed. There must have been more than 50 air strikes over our house that day. Aircraft were flying above our house back and forth at an altitude of about 200'. We could, on occasion, see the rivets on the aircraft. We looked up and prayed that they didn't have a malfunction. At one point Captain Will told John, "I was interested in buying property near you, but it's just too noisy!" His face was red on one side from fighting the Pioneertown blaze on Tuesday.
Anyway, thank god the wind was favorable for that attack, as it was very successful. We drove back down to Desert Hot Springs around 5:00 p.m. to get the truck and pick up the kitties that Chris reported "were having issues with each other." We were there just in time to catch the 5:00 p.m. news on local CBS and saw my live interview from that morning! The crew stayed with us that evening, had dinner on our patio and set up cots on our front porch.
Before we retired, we got a knock at the patio door. One of the younger crew walked in and spoke to John. He wanted to thank us and told John how awesome we are! That immediately brought tears to my eyes and we both said, "No, you're the awesome ones." At 10:15 p.m. John and I both applauded when we heard the icemaker drop a batch of ice! I went out behind the house to scan the hillsides before I could crawl into bed. I saw one hot spot burning behind us that made me nervous. John assured me that "they were watching." The crew told John that they would probably head out around 8:00 a.m. the next morning. John told them that was fine, because he gets up early and would have coffee for everyone. At 7:00 a.m., when John got up, he came back in and said, "The angels are gone." Both of us had slept so soundly that neither of us had heard the 2 engines start up in our driveway and leave.
It is now the following Monday and the ash has stopped raining down and the smoke has cleared. We are safe and everything can go back to normal. We won't have to worry about wildfire for 20 years where we live. The firefighters saved hundreds and hundreds of houses in Morongo Valley. There were no homes lost in our town. Three engines came up to the house today, patrolling, willing to answer questions, and there is a CDF unit physically checking the landscape on the street behind us. I waved to each of them and told them thank you.
We will never forget the work that was done on our behalf and on behalf of the residents (man and beast) of Morongo Valley and its surrounding communities. We also thank our friends who housed us (and the kitties), and our family and friends who assisted us and called us with concern for our safety.
Text + photo © 2006 Lana Thompson