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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes
SAN DIEGO: San Diego National Wildlife Refuge to Assess Scope of Damage Following Devastating Harris Fire in Southern California
Region 8, October 28, 2007
Refuge Manager Jill Terp surveys burned landscape from atop San Miguel Mountain on San Diego NWR. (Photo: Scott Flaherty)
Refuge Manager Jill Terp surveys burned landscape from atop San Miguel Mountain on San Diego NWR. (Photo: Scott Flaherty) - Photo Credit: n/a
Scorched refuge boundary signs at San Diego NWR. (Photo: Scott Flaherty)
Scorched refuge boundary signs at San Diego NWR. (Photo: Scott Flaherty) - Photo Credit: n/a

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

By Scott Flaherty, CNO External Affairs
SAN DIEGO (Oct. 28)--Officials at San Diego National Wildlife Refuge are continuing to assess the full impacts to wildlife, habitat and day-to-day operations in the wake of a devastating wildfire that threatened the refuge’s headquarters building and seared almost half of its 8,493 acres early last week.

The refuge, part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex, was an early target of the Harris Fire, which has damaged or destroyed more than 445 homes and burned more than 86,000 acres across San Diego County since Sunday morning, October 21. 

More than 2,000 firefighters and support personnel from federal, state and local agencies have been assigned to fight the Harris Fire, which was 65 percent contained by Saturday evening.  Injuries to 21 civilians and 16 firefighters and one civilian death have been attributed to the fire, which began at 9:30 a.m. near Portrero, about 20 miles southeast of the refuge headquarters in Jamul. 

Bill Molumby, the Service’s Fire Management Officer for southern California, said two firefighter crews from the refuge joined in the initial attack on the fire Sunday morning.  Fueled by strong Santa Ana winds from the east, the fire was threatening the refuge headquarters by 2 p.m. Monday afternoon.

" The fire burned quickly through areas that had burned on the refuge during the Mine fire in 2003. That surprised me," said Molumby, a veteran firefighter with more than 33 years experience. "I knew our buildings were going to be okay, but I was hoping we would have the same magic we did in 2003 when only 200 acres of refuge land was burned."

For the next four hours, Molumby, Refuge Law Enforcement Officer Fred Workman and a single firefighting crew performed a series of back burns that diverted the fire around the headquarters building, a converted private ranch complex shared with the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In addition to saving the headquarters, the refuge firefighters also prevented damage to other structures that house CDFG personnel. 

A four-member engine crew from Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex arrived late Monday afternoon to assist the two San Diego refuge firefighting crews. The Sacramento crew, led by Engine Captain Mark Rakestraw, joined in suppression operations after driving more than 10 hours from their home station near Chico, Calif.

Fire crews from both refuges also worked to protect adjacent homes and other structures throughout the week. On Tuesday, San Diego refuge firefighters protected homes along the perimeter of the refuge at Millar Ranch Road and conducted back burns along highway 94 to protect Steele Canyon High School, which had been converted to a county evacuation shelter.  On Thursday, Sacramento firefighters conducted back burns and suppression activities that protected several high-value homes at Rancho Jamul Estates, a housing development less than two miles from the refuge headquarters building.

In addition to refuge fire fighters, two fire-trained biologists from the Service’s Carlsbad Fish and Wildlife Office served as resource advisors, with the San Miguel Fire District, and assisted with suppressing hot spots Friday.

Molumby credited the refuge fire crews for performing safely despite long hours under extreme conditions. San Diego refuge crews began work Sunday morning and worked long, arduous hours though Monday with minimal rest. Their first time off--a four-hour break--came Tuesday. They’ve been working 16-hour days since.  "The many hours of fire training and the experience level of the crew supervisors Gordon Tamplin and Jim Mitchell really paid off," Molumby said.

The fire left the refuge Wednesday after burning 4,193 acres of refuge-owned land that provides unique habitat for a variety of wildlife. More than 76 percent of the refuge’s chaparral was burned, as was 40 percent of the coastal sage scrub, habitat for the threatened California gnatcatcher, a non-migratory bird. Other habitat losses include 38 percent of grassland-vernal pool-meadow habitats and 13 percent of riparian vegetation.   

"Controlling erosion will be one of our highest priorities," said Refuge Manager Jill Terp, who became the San Diego refuge manager just eight weeks ago after serving several years as a biologist in the Carlsbad Fish and Wildlife Office. "With much of the mountainside vegetation burned bringing back the native habitat while controlling invasive weeds will be a challenge for us."

Terp and her refuge staff returned to their offices Tuesday, and immediate began assessing the damage to refuge lands at San Miguel Mountain and Proctor Valley.

This week, a Burn Area Emergency Rehabilitation (BAER) Team will assist Terp assess the full scope of damage to land and wildlife managed by the refuge. Team members include representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies within the Department of the Interior (DOI). The team will spend several days assessing damage to land and property belonging to the refuge and other DOI agencies, including BLM and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which was also affected by the Harris, Witch Creek and Poomacha fires.  Team assessments will help agencies determine costs for repair and rehabilitation.

"I was impressed by the high level of cooperation and camaraderie among the firefighting community.  I am very proud of our refuge firefighters and their role in protecting life, property and habitats," said Andy Yuen, project leader for the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

For Molumby, the Harris Fire is one of a short list of large fires he’s tackled in his 33 fire seasons, each one a learning experience.

"You remember each fire. You try to gain lessons that will enable you to do a better job the next time you’re called, or remember the things you didn’t do so well.  The Harris Fire is another in a history of big fires in the west, but when it happens on your refuge it’s personal."

The San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex includes the San Diego NWR, San Diego Bay NWR, Tijuana Slough NWR and Seal Beach NWR. Information about the complex is available on the web at http://www.fws.gov/sandiegorefuges

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 97-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System, which encompasses 548 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 69 national fish hatcheries, 63 fish and wildlife management offices and 81 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Assistance program, which distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.

More information about National Wildlife Refuges in California is available on the web at http://www.fws.gov/cno 

 

 

 

 

 

Contact Info: Scott Flaherty, , Scott_Flaherty@fws.gov