The experience of seeing a fire as a teenager ignited an interest for Kevin O’Leary that led to a lifelong career, one in which he remains active despite his retirement.
“I love the business,” said the 53-year-old Ramonan who climbed the ladders during his career to a top position with CalFire.
Before retiring in December 2010, O’Leary served as CalFire’s deputy chief of local government, reporting to the head of CalFire in San Diego County.
During his lengthy career, O’Leary said, he has seen historical changes in firefighting.
Forecasts of Santa Ana winds now make him nervous, and O’Leary said he worries about young firefighters being in harm’s way.
“I hope you never see another ‘03 or ‘07,” he said, referring to the wildfires that occurred in those years. He noted that during the Cedar fire in 2003 and the Witch Creek fire in 2007, other fires were burning in the area.
“Those two periods of time in October were the worst I saw in my career,” O’Leary said.
In 2003, O’Leary said, he was working the Cedar fire in San Diego Country Estates when he was called to work the Paradise Fire in Valley Center. There were fires all over, he noted.
The fire that sticks out most in his mind, however, is the Poomacha fire that started on the La Jolla Indian Reservation at the base of Palomar Mountain on Oct. 23, 2007, while the Witch Creek fire was burning.
“It was an unbelievable fire for me,” he said. “I never saw fire move so quickly. It moved at an unbelievable rate.”
The conditions were explosive, the seasoned firefighter noted, with winds over 70 mph and critically low fuel moistures.
“Embers traveled a mile ahead of the fire front,” he said. “It was something you never want to see again.”
According to O’Leary, about 245 homes burned in the La Jolla and Rincon Indian Reservations and Pauma Valley, and pockets of that fire were still burning around Thanksgiving that year.
In 2007, O’Leary said he was awake longer than he’d ever been in his life. He had been working the fires for 60 hours when he was told to get some sleep.
“It was total chaos,” he said of the fire situation.
Firefighters just continued to work with little sleep, he said. And yet, when he was told to nap, O’Leary didn’t want to leave.
From the 2007 Witch Creek fire, O’Leary saw something that amazed him. For months, fires continued to smolder underground and followed the root systems of trees, causing a tree, such as an oak, to suddenly start burning.
“I wouldn’t have believed it unless I saw it,” he said.
Firefighting conditions started becoming more difficult around 2000 when there was a fire in Fallbrok, he said. Firefighters were unable to contain the fire like they normally did because of drought conditions.
O’Leary’s career began at age 15 when he served as a volunteer with the Poway Fire Department. He worked his way into a reserve position.