YUCCA VALLEY, Calif. -- After scouring more than 61,700 acres of arid desert, the flames of the Sawtooth Complex Fire have moved away from the High Desert as residents and local communities return to their lives.
What began July 8 as a 700-acre fire from a lightning strike in the hills north of Yucca Valley, Calif., was whipped into a fast-moving inferno by strong easterly winds three days later.
The Combat Center Fire Department received the call for assistance July 11 at 12:20 p.m., and by 12:40 four firefighters and one engine were dispatched to the scene, joining what would become the first strike team to move to the front lines.
Thousands of residents have been evacuated to local shelters in the days since and as many firefighters from around Southern California have been called in to battle the blaze.
To make matters more complex for firefighters and rescuers, the Sawtooth Complex Fire became the largest fire of the season in California before it merged with the Millard Fire July 14, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention.
For many residents of the small foothill towns north of Yucca Valley, the relentless winds and fast-moving flames caused visible fear and anxiety as the fire moved nearer their homes. Bob Lehman was no exception.
Lehmen, the chief engineer with the Combat Center Facilities Maintenance Division, left work early July 11 to join his wife at their home near historic Pioneertown, Calif., where firefighters fought to protect structures and at one point were actually surrounded by the fire.
“I headed back Tuesday afternoon and it was very eerie out there,” he recalled. “The smoke was brown-grey, the sky was brown-grey and the sun was hidden and blood red.
“It was at about 4:30 p.m. when the smoke started coming toward our hillside,” said Lehman, who has lived at his High Desert home for the past eight years. “It got smoky and we could see lots of flames coming at us, so it was a little scary. We were worried about that. Then we were asked to leave and got our things together and left.”
When Lehman and his wife returned later that evening after the danger had passed, he was relieved to see his house still standing with only the hillside behind it blackened.
“I think the firefighters were what saved the house, and they kept the flames from jumping the roads to Flamingo Heights,” said Lehman.
As of Tuesday, one man had died and 17 others had received minor injures -- mostly burns and smoke inhalation. Property damage has been estimated by CDF at more than $13,800,000 which includes 50 homes, 171 outbuildings, 8 mobile homes, 191 cars and pick up trucks and various other vehicles.
On scene were 2,296 fire personnel, more than 220 ground vehicles, 15 helicopters and six airplanes as well as other support vehicles from around the state which helped save more than $900,000,000 in property through direct fire suppression, CDF estimated.
Fire Chief Kevin P. Mathieu, Combat Center training chief, said many of the homes saved were ones which had brush cleared away from their houses. The abundance of dry fuels such as dead grass, dry trees and shrubs, and very low humidity helped the fire spread rapidly when the wind picked up.
“This was pretty much a house-to-house fight. The terrain is extremely rugged and there is so much dead fuel for it to burn,” he said. “The entire area is just dead grass and dry trees and hasn’t burned in years.”
Despite the number of personnel on the ground to fight the fire directly, many firefighters battling the firestorm had been there since the beginning, and will remain until after the fire is completely out to help with cooling “hot spots” as well as searching for survivors. Once the fire is out, crews may supplement strike teams fighting other smaller fires in the region.
After working on the front lines continually for seven days as part of the first strike team at the fire, Combat Center firefighters returned home Monday night. Their team was the first disbanded as the fire was further contained, said Mathieu.
One common thread among survivors of natural disasters is their ability to pull together as a community. The cities of the High Desert were no different. People helping neighbors by sheltering and rescuing pets, donating to the American Red Cross or simply stepping forward to lend a hand became common sights.
“The community response has been outstanding,” he said. “I think it’s helped bring the community together. It’s a disaster, but it brings out the good in people and that’s a plus.”
The smoke from the fire, visible as far away as Las Vegas and could be smelled all the way to Wisconsin but has since dissipated, signaling and end to the ordeal. Most residents know this is due in part to the tireless efforts of firefighters from the region who risked life and limb to quell the blaze.
“We owe a lot to the firefighters who are out there, because they are putting their lives on the line for us,” said Lehman. “We enjoy our place so we plan to stay. The mountains are black now, but hopefully we’ll see some green again soon.”
As of Tuesday, the Sawtooth/Millard Fire had been contained to 85 percent and full containment was expected by Wednesday morning.