San Diego

Mountain Communities Preparing Defense Against Possible Wildfires

Just two weeks ago, the West Fire burned more than 500 acres in Alpine

Every 15 minutes, fire lookout Curt Waite grabs his binoculars and takes a look around the dry Campo landscape. Just a couple of weeks ago in nearby Alpine, the West Fire burned more than 500 acres of land and destroyed 34 homes.

This week, inland San Diego is under an Excessive Heat Warning, and the hot temperatures are not only dangerous for people, they also increase the risk of a brush fire.

“With all the technology, the human eye is still the best machine for picking up that first smoke,” Waite tells NBC 7. He works at the Los Pinos Lookout sitting high above Campo.

“We are up on top of the world, we have a fantastic view up here,” he says. “We are out in the wilderness with all kinds of wildlife.”

In the lookout, Curt uses a tool called a fire finder, old technology created in the early 1900s.

“We have had a couple of fires in Alpine this season,” he says. “I called one of them in, in Alpine Heights."

"Thankfully it didn’t get too big," he added.

The Los Pinos lookout is the only tower in Southern California still run by a paid professional. All the others are monitored by volunteers.

Back in Alpine, residents are relying not on technology but on preparedness.

The West Fire caught Jeff Thomas and a lot of his neighbors off guard. 

"There was a guy driving down the street in his pick-up truck, honking his horn because there really wasn't any time," Thomas remembered.

Colin Campbell told NBC 7 "We had 60 seconds, maybe," to gather his life and evacuate.

Though Thomas was under a mandatory evacuation, he chose to stay behind and protect his home and others on his block with a garden hose hooked up to a pool pump.

The pump turned his squirting hose into a powerful defense tool that could shoot a stream of water 20 to 30 feet. He said he bought it after the 2003 Cedar Fire nearly took the home he built himself 28 years ago.

A tree feet away from his home caught fire but he was able to keep it from spreading to his roof. But he didn't evacuate once he secured his won property. He took his makeshift water cannon to the next house, and to the next house after that, so he could do the same thing for his neighbors.

"It's amazing to me that my home was saved because of my neighbors," Trudy Martineau said, forever grateful for her neighbor and friend, Thomas.

NBC 7 heard several stories from residents like Thomas describing how the blazed pounced on their community and how neighbors, both immediate and distant, helped them escape and recover.

Several years of drought, strong winds and low humidity also contribute to the likelihood of a fire, firefighters say. The drought specifically has created dry underbrush and grass, which are conducive to brush fires.

The Excessive Heat Warning continues through Thursday evening. 

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