Donald Crittenden’s home in Escondido stood about 100 yards away from the fire that ravaged North County last month.
Crittenden’s neighbors to the north and south saw their backyards succumbed to the blaze.
As the fire drew closer and closer to his home, Crittenden and his family were forced to leave.
Leaving the fate of his home to Mother Nature and to the firefighters who would combat the fires, Crittenden knew there was a possibility that he would never return to his home again.
“When we left we didn’t know if we were going to come back and see our home,” he said.
Three weeks after the wildfires that terrorized neighborhoods in northern San Diego, Crittenden’s home of 17 years remains standing thanks to the National City Fire Department which patrolled his neighborhood for three days looking for hot spots.
“As we came up the hill and we saw our house intact and also our neighborhood, so not only did our house not burn but all of our neighbors — there is about 40 houses or so in this area — and we were all very, very relieved and very thankful that all of the fire departments showed up and took care of our neighborhood,” he said. “It is really a huge feeling of gratefulness.”
Like most fire departments in San Diego County, a four-man strike team from the National City Fire Department was dispatched to fight the San Diego fires that spread rapidly in North County and caused an estimated $57.7 million worth of damage.
National City Fire Capt. Ben Garcia said once there was a red flag warning, the department knew they were next in line to assist in extinguishing the fires.
“We knew we were probably going to get called because of so many resources being used and utilized so we figured it was just a matter of time; not if, but when,” Garcia said. “And when we got the call we were already pretty much ready to go.”
The strike team, along with a crew from Coronado, was called out to protect structures in the Poinsettia fire in Carlsbad.
The first task that the crew from National City had was to work with air support to protect Aviara Oaks elementary and middle school, which they successfully did after one day.
Once their job battling the Poinsettia fire was complete, the crew was then sent to fight the Cocos fire, also known as the San Marcos fire, where they turned their energy to protecting neighborhood homes in the Escondido-San Marcos area for three full days.
This is when the job of protecting Crittendon’s home and those in his neighborhood became a priority.
Garcia and his staff worked around the clock, working 24-hour operational periods and only getting two and-a half hours of rest on the first day of duty and five hours of rest the second day.
When the crew got back home it received an extra few days off from work to help them refresh.
“It was nice to have a few days off afterward,” Garcia said.
While the Poinsettia fire destroyed 11 homes, two apartment buildings and two commercial buildings, the Cocos fire caused the most damage as it burned about 1,995 acres and damaged about 36 homes.
But Garcia and his team were fortunate enough to not let the fires burn down any structures.
“We had zero losses on our count,” Garcia said.
This wasn’t Garcia’s first go- round battling out-of-control wildfires.
The National City firefighter of 13 years helped defeat the Cedar fire in 2003 and the 2007 San Diego wildfires.
He said the fact that the recent fires were more westerly in an area where air humidity was lower made it difficult to extinguish.
“So what was different is that these fires got so big and so fast early in the season,” he said.
However, this was Garcia’s first time being the captain of a strike team and the first time the three other men were part of a strike team.
Garcia said he now knows that he can trust his team to do a great job when they are called upon.
Crittenden said he couldn’t be prouder.
“We have the greatest amount of respect for the professionalism of the firefighters all over,” he said. “Certainly National City can be very proud of their fire department and especially Engine Company 34.”