CARLSBAD — Over the course of 96 hours, the Poinsettia fire gripped the city as a massive blaze ripped through its center putting residents on edge.
The fire ignited at 10:34 a.m. on May 14, 2014, on the Omni La Costa Golf Course near Poinsettia Lane. Once the report came in, the Carlsbad Fire Department was on full alert and city officials immediately began coordinating evacuations and their response.
However, the deck was stacked against first responders as it was a “perfect storm,” said Battalion Chief Mike Lopez, who was the incident commander. It was the hottest day of the year (95 degrees), relative humidity was 5% and wind gusts reached 20 mph when the fire started. Wind gusts reached up to 55 mph later in the day.
“It really tested us,” Lopez said. “All that training came to fruition, especially with the managing of the incident with David Harrison. I was humbled. We were all taxed that day.”
In total, the blaze scorched 400 acres, more than 240 structures and caused more than $12 million in damage.
Investigators still have not pinpointed the cause. There was one fatality, but an underlying medical condition may have been responsible for the death, according to retired Chief Mike Davis and Emergency Preparedness Manager David Harrison.
The fire was spotted by San Diego Copter One, which was responding to the Bernardo fire in 4S Ranch. The helicopter was also the first to put water on the fire, Davis said. In total, more than 68,000 gallons of water was dropped.
Within the first 30 minutes, numerous firefighters from other jurisdictions responded, making rescues allowing Carlsbad Fire Department to collect the resources to fully fight the fire.
“These are the very best fire professionals in the state,” Davis said of individuals from San Marcos, San Diego and other departments. “They came and not just helped us, but made an impact and changed people’s lives forever.”
Adding to the complexity to Carlsbad Fire’s response was the rest of San Diego County was dealing with 17 other fires in the same timeframe, said Chief Mike Calderwood. Calderwood had been assigned to assist with the Tomahawk fire at Camp Pendleton.
The Poinsettia fire grew more aggressive and soon jumped north across Poinsettia Lane and lit up brush and chaparral on the perimeter of Alga Norte Park and threatened businesses off Cassia Road.
The fire jumped the firefighters’ line and kept raging north. In addition, the blaze also jumped southwest over El Camino Real to the open space adjacent to Cassia Road and Poinsettia Lane, threatening Aviara Oaks middle and elementary schools, as well as hundreds of apartments and single-family residences.
The fire burned right up to the eastern edge of the school’s campus, but its response in evacuating the children is one of admiration from Davis. The blaze also went down Black Trail Road north toward Palomar Airport Road.
“It looked like a nuclear bomb went off in the middle of the city,” Davis recalled. “There was never a thought, in my mind, that we didn’t have the capacity to do what needed to get done. That capacity is generated through the relationships we have.”
The cleanup took nearly one year, Davis said. Lopez and Calderwood said it was amazing what was discovered in the charred remains on the west side of El Camino Real.
Since the terrain was hidden for decades, items such as refrigerators, cars and hazardous materials were littered throughout the valleys of the area.
Adding to the complexity was all 400 acres burned were on private property, although those owners and the city worked to maximize cleanup efforts and restoration.
Harrison has built one of the premier emergency response departments in the state, Davis said. Over the course of his tenure with the city, Harrison, a former Naval officer, has ramped up the training and response for city staff, along with building the Certified Emergency Response Team (CERT), made up of volunteer residents.
Within the first two hours of the fire, he began sending out evacuation calls to residents and business in the area. He said the city delivered about 20,000 calls reaching between 7,000 to 10,000 people, noting it is difficult to calculate the exact number of people contacted.
One area of concern was layering the calls and responses to avoid creating additional choke points along the roads, as Carlsbad police had established roadblocks to prevent incoming traffic.
“In higher density cities, the problem that creates is you exceed the road-carrying capacity … and it creates choke points,” Harrison explained. “So, it was really the first time we were trying to balance calls versus choke-point monitoring. It was innovative and the time, and probably still innovative. We were trying to meter the evacuation.”
Lopez, meanwhile, was deep into coordinating efforts between Carlsbad Fire Department and neighboring agencies.
The San Marcos Fire Department responded, but then had to return to its city as another fire broke out forcing those firefighters to respond to their own incident. Throughout the four days it took to extinguish the fire, at least 75 agencies including ones from Utah and Mexico, assisted with the Poinsettia Fire.
In addition to coordination efforts, Davis and Harrison were also putting together supplemental action plans ranging from two to 72 hours.
“You need to have a planning section,” Davis said. “That planning section is twofold: plans that have to happen in terms of operation personnel and then there’s citywide issues that have to managed.”
The emergency operations center (EOC) is the central hub for city staffers to take their assigned positions, relaying information to and from the field.
The EOC is a hodgepodge of different departments working on all aspects from logistics, support, organizing shelters, evacuations, traffic control and feeding between 350 and 400 firefighters.
Organization and communication are critical to the success of the EOC, Harrison said. And fortunate for the city, Harrison had conducted a drill in October 2014, providing a refresher for the staff.
Davis said the EOC was conducting all functions from its headquarters at the Carlsbad Safety Center rather than at the incident command post.
It paid off, as staff and CERT were seamless in its functions, Harrison said.
“I remember during the Poinsettia fire thinking at one point how similar it felt to the drills we’d done,” Tina Ray, Carlsbad’s community outreach and engagement director recalled. “We knew what we needed to do, like muscle memory. These aren’t ‘table top’ exercises, they’re full on simulations, with TV news stations blaring in the background, maps and charts projected on all the walls, phones ringing off the hook. Putting that level of effort into planning and training really paid off.”
A fire of this magnitude doesn’t happen often, especially in more densely populated area, Davis said. The Poinsettia fire is classified as an urban fire, much different in scope than wildland fires.
But the large open space east of the school also could have spelled disaster for the first responders. Lopez said there is no record in the city’s history, dating back 120 years, of the area ever burning.
So, grass and other vegetation reached 20 feet in height, thus providing a blanket over what the terrain actually is. Once the blaze burned down all the brush and grass, it revealed areas with steep cliffs, which formerly looked like rolling hills with more gentle slopes.
“If it wasn’t for everyone participating in that fire, the fire would’ve burned all the way … to the Pacific Ocean,” Lopez said. “We started it at Alicante and Poinsettia and you literally had flames laying down on Poinsettia.”
While the Poinsettia fire left scars, Davis, Lopez and Calderwood still, five years later, receive compliments about how well and organized the city fought the blaze. Firefighters from other departments will and have approached each of the men and said the base camp was the best they’ve ever experienced.
And much of that is due to Harrison’s efforts, but also city staff, CERT and residents and businesses who overwhelmed those with food donations, water and anything else they thought were of need.
“I was in Sacramento last week and someone came up to me and said they were on the Poinsettia fire and said ‘that was the best base camp I’ve ever been on in my life,” Calderwood said laughing. “That was just last week. It was the city and community support.”