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Fire on the Mountain
by Bill Tichenor

A little scenario, from my perspective, of the Fatherís Day firestorm (also known as the Lost Cannon Fire) here in Walker, CA.

We are all safe now, though things have been a bit hairy during the past few days.  This fire (now called the Lost Cannon Fire) started on Saturday, June 15th about 1 PM.  We first saw the unmistakable plume of forest fire smoke when we came back into town late that afternoon, though it looked pretty far away to the southwest.  Actually it was about 9 miles away as the crow flies, so our immediate evaluation of the danger to us and the town of Walker was minimal.  However, early Sunday morning (on the 16th) two sheriff's deputies came to the door warning us of a possible evacuation if the fast-moving fire came closer. 

As the day went on, the smoke drifting into our valley got thicker and by about 4 PM there was an increasing reddish glow over the ridge in back of the house.  The fire had moved very quickly, there was no stopping it as it chased backcountry firefighters from the USFS and US Marine Corps across Little Antelope Valley at speeds sometimes faster than their vehicles could go.  The speed of the firestorm was surprising to those in charge of fighting it. 

The fire had quickly leaped two ridges, raced across a very large open meadow and covered several miles in a matter of hours.  It was shortly after 4 PM when we saw it come over and around the hill at the mouth of Mill Creek Canyon just to the south of us.  The flames roared down the canyon toward our house on 40-50 mph winds, creating its own wind and covering the quarter mile in probably less than 2 minutes.  It leapt ahead of itself, starting fires far in advance of the main body of flame.

Since we are the last house up the canyon (or the first house from the fire's perspective) we were hit first. Our nearest neighbor is more than 100 yards down the canyon and a little off to the east, with houses closer by.  Our house is totally exposed and was directly in the path of the firestorm.  The fire came directly at us - going up to, around and over the house.

The agencies there to fight the fire (USFS, CDF, BLM, etc.) were nowhere to be found.  From early morning on Sunday, at least 6 cars or trucks with officials from several agencies had been up at the house at various times, telling us where they would put the fire breaks and deploy the fire crews.  We had showed them where to gain easy access to the BLM land up-canyon from us with their bulldozers.  We had walked our property with several of them and they assured us they were prepared and would stop the fire before it got to the house, so it was not going to burn. 

When the wall of flame finally came at us, the local Antelope Valley VFD structural fire unit was the only outfit there - and we got hit with the full force of the firestorm.  Now, I finally really know what the term 'firestorm' means.  My wife Lisa and son Kirby, and two of our cats had evacuated by then, locating to my classroom at school. 

Seeing no other firefighting support, I elected to stay at the house with the VFD.  The fire was very intense, overwhelming the firefighters with heat and a 30-foot wall of flame.  The VFD  judged their lives and equipment to be in extreme danger, and felt they did not have the resources to battle the blaze.  They left, hauling ass through the smoke down the driveway, with fire burning all around.  The firemen told me to get out of there, but I again elected to stay.  By that time the heat was very intense and the smoke so thick, I couldnít see the VFD after they had driven 50 feet.

Armed with my trusty garden hose, standing on the roof, I sprayed water on the side of the house that the flames were coming toward to keep it from bursting into flame.  I sprayed me, too, so I wouldn't turn into a crispy critter.  I also wetted down the two junipers next to that side of the house, knowing if they caught fire, the house was going to be lost.  The VFD had tried to cut them down, but they couldnít finish before the fire struck. 

Finally, the pumphouse supplying the water to the hose burned down, taking the water pressure and the last of the flowing water with it.  Meanwhile the storage shed, between the house and pumphouse, had also disintegrated in a burst of flame and was gone quickly.  The heat and smoke was intense.  I could not see very much because of the smoke, but could hear pinion pines going up around me like roman candles. 

Miraculously the firestorm passed, the flames heading down toward my neighbors and the rest of the town of Walker.  The house was still standing (relatively unscathed) however there were flames, flares and hotspots all around (including near the propane tank).  I used the water in the hot tub - one bucket at a time - to put them out.  Another hour and about 300 gallons later, most of the little fires were out.  Then the smoke started to clear, things cooled down, and the VFD came back.  To their amazement not only was I still alive, but the house was still standing inside our fire-protection space, minus only some trees and a few other plants.

The firemen were astounded and somewhat sheepishly said they thought the house and I were goners.  I told the VFD they had missed all the fun.  I just figured they left 'cause they knew I had it under control.  Yeah, right.

Well, the fire has burned now over 24,000 acres, cost at least 3 lives (of the bomber pilot and crew) and burned miraculously few structures.  The firemen have worked their asses off and the professional fire crews have done a fantastic job of fighting this dangerous and unpredictable wildfire.  Many people owe their lives and homes to the valiant efforts of dedicated people.

Here we are all OK, and had to deal with all the little things in the aftermath, like getting water to the house, restarting utilities and the ever-present insurance companies.  The smoke smell and ash is everywhere, and will take a lot of time to disappear.

Photo by Bill TichenorFor us, our reward is that our home and lives are secure.  Not just the actions on that chaotic day saved the house.  Most importantly, on my wife Lisaís insistence, Kirby and I had spent most weekends of the previous two months clearing brush around the house, inside and outside of the road that circles the structure.  We cleared most of the brush and weeds 15-20 feet on the outside of the road, as well as everything on the inside, so there was a minimum of 30-40 feet of defensible space around the structure.  Due largely to that, lots of luck, and some other probably spiritual forces, we still have our house and lives.

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