It has been nearly a year since Intermountain Fire/Rescue Chief Cary Coleman stepped outside the station east of Ramona and smelled smoke.
“I went to stand outside at 12:42,” said Coleman, recalling Oct. 21, 2007. “I smelled smoke and heard the call go out at the same time.”
Witch Fire first responders from the Intermountain department took only seven minutes to arrive at the blaze. The fire was already “jumping the road” as the all-volunteer engine company pulled up.
Facing winds in excess of 40 mph, the firefighters “could not get ahead of it,” but instead stayed with the flame front in an attempt to protect homes and lives. By 7 p.m., said Coleman, the force of the winds faced by firefighters in some locations were in excess of 100 miles per hour — the equivalent of a category 2 hurricane.
Battalion Chief John Boyer stood defending Station No. 85 when the fire came through. Boyer and a crew of four — one from Station 85, one who came from Shelter Valley to help, and two trainees from Julian-Cuyamaca Fire — cut a line around the station as the fire bore down, ripping through the area with gale-force winds. The small crew was alone with only the water truck for ten minutes.
“Once the call was out that the station was threatened,” said Boyer, “the other engines in the area came over to help.”
The firebreak held, and the flames continued around the building. By mid-afternoon, reinforcements numbering about 35 arrived to help.
Local fire crews fought on as firefighters from across the state answered the call in an attempt to gain control of the growing inferno. During the fight to save Station 85, the building housed 10 civilians who evacuated their homes and could not get up or down the road.
With few windows, the people inside the building were unable to watch the heroes beyond the walls.
“Eventually, we housed about 25 people in all for about 24hours until the roads cleared and they could be escorted out,” said Boyer.
An American Red Cross and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) station was set up at the site, providing hot meals, supplies, equipment and help for two to three weeks after the fire. In preparation for the next disaster, Station 85 at 25858 state Route 78 has emergency relief supplies on site.
It is the first responders in many life-threatening situations who make the difference between control and chaos.
Intermountain Fire/Rescue, headquartered at Station No. 85, is a 100 percent volunteer fire department that services areas in Ramona covered by the Cal Fire firefighters funded by the Ramona Municipal Water District (RMWD).
RMWD covers 75 square miles. Intermountain volunteers cover the rest of the community east of town in its 125-mile area that also borders Julian, Lake Henshaw and Palomar Mountain. In the case of the wildfires in the backcountry, volunteers are the backbone of first-response teams.
Intermountain’s station was built with federal and Indian grant money and help from county Supervisor Dianne Jacob.