As another horrific wildfire tears through California, spreading across 8,000 acres and causing massive evacuations, a Brit will remember the moment he was nearly burned alive.
Ordinarily, Andy Elliott, a firefighter from Dorset, would be across the pond to help tackle some of America’s most devastating blazes.
But because of travel restrictions, she is unable to join the 200 firefighters charged with extinguishing the Alisal fire in Santa Barbara, which broke out on Monday.
Strong winds gusting up to 70 mph and dry wood that serves as a tinderbox Because the flames intensified even further, what had already been described as “busy fire season”.
Andy knows these circumstances very well from his 38 years as a firefighter—particularly while dealing with the 2015 Valley Fire in Lake County, California, which nearly claimed his life.
He talked specifically about the terrible struggle between man and a terrible hell.
waiting for death
There was no escape, all they could do was wait for the fierce flames to swallow the woods, buildings and gas canisters.
Some firefighters cried, others made the final call to family members but Andy – a retained firefighter who called in for help with emergencies – sat still in a trance, as it was burning.
Helicopters were unable to reach them due to the intensity of the fire and despite doing their best to stop the fire from spreading, they did not know that it was enough.
After accepting that they might die, each crew member took one final picture of themselves in front of the wildfire, which they thought was the last message they would ever send.
Now whenever Andy looks at his picture that shows smoke-black skies and amber hell, he smiles and refers to it as “my victory picture”.
The fire was started by a spark from a faulty hot tub, which coupled with extremely hot and dry weather conditions, turned into a 33-day fire that killed four people, destroyed 1,955 buildings and burned 76,000 acres of land. Gave.
Andy was driving through a nearby valley when he received his first call for help that day, and a few seconds later he saw a huge “column of smoke” in the distance.
He explained: “We could see it immediately, the thick black smoke rising very rapidly and increasing in size.
“The fire’s behavior was something I’ve never seen before and haven’t seen since.
“There was an almost horizontal vortex, like a whirlwind of fire on its side, propelling huge columns of smoke down the valley.
“It was driven by very, very powerful winds and was traveling at such a speed that no one alive could stand before that fire.”
On TV, the public watched helicopters drop water and fire retardants on the flames – but Andy insisted that the real hard work was done on the ground.
His team spent hours at a ‘cutting line’ – where firefighters remove all vegetation to create a fireproof boundary and prevent flames from reaching more fuel.
During the attempts, four firefighters were badly burned after being trapped and were forced to take cover under their fire shelters and let the flames burn over themselves.
Andy said: “If you can imagine a foil sleeping bag that you climb into, that’s the best I can describe it – they offer limited protection, so if you need to climb into a fire shelter So it’s a desperate time.
“All four of these people had very serious burns, some of them career-changing and life-changing, and when I first met them they were in a very sorry state.
“Later that same day, I probably came as close as I’ve ever been to serious injury or potentially losing my life in a wildfire.”
The crew was working near a fire station when flames swirled around them and there was no chance for helicopters to evacuate them.
reaches a point when you’ve done all you can… you know you have no defense, no one is coming to your aid
In the video footage, which shows dangerous pink and blue flames engulfing trees and the ground, Andy can be heard saying: “We are now officially surrounded.”
After attempting to control the fire and setting their own fire to redirect to hell, the crew gathered at a safe location – a helipad on top of a hill.
Andy recalled: “While we could have detonated gas tanks from properties around us, many of my colleagues and I really felt that our lives were in danger at the time.
“A point is reached when you’ve done all that you can — cut all the lines you can cut and burn — and you know you have no defense, no one.” Not coming to your aid.”
Thick black smoke clogged their lungs, streams streamed into their eyes and their noses runny but they could only accept their fate – good or bad.
Andy said: “You’re in that fight-or-flight kind of mode. We did whatever we could, we had no choice but to run away, we just had to sit and wait and get this thing out of our hands.” Had to let go
“My friends and colleagues found it very difficult. They were thinking of their families, sending messages to their families… For some of them, it was very emotional.
“My colleagues asked me if I would take pictures of them to send to their colleagues? [along] What he thought might be his last message.
“He insisted on taking a picture of me, which I still have, and it’s actually my screensaver on my computer.
“It’s a picture I started calling ‘my victory picture’ because it very well could have been my last picture.”
In the image, Andy is holding an ax in his right hand and is mere meters away from the orange flames and thick smoke.
It was like driving at Armageddon, the stickers on the vehicle were peeling off and you could smell the paint heating up with the car as you were driving down the road.
Fortunately, the firefighters’ efforts paid off and the flames passed around them – but their day was not over.
Within hours of moving to nearby Middletown, which was half destroyed, they were dispatched to evacuate residents just before the path of the fire.
Andy recalled: “A community we knew was in immediate danger so we had to chase the fire and … to do that we had to drive through the fire.
“It was like driving at Armageddon, the stickers on the vehicle were peeling off and you could smell the paint heating up with the car as you were driving down the road.
‘If you don’t leave you will die’
“We will come to the cars that were abandoned” [and] Cars that were burnt. We had to stop and check every car to make sure there were none.
“Every Burned Car When You Open the Car You Expect the Worst” [door]Luckily everyone managed to escape somehow.”
They reached the community and ran from door to door giving locals “vague instructions”: “Your life is in immediate danger, you will die if you don’t leave.”
The Valley Fire in 2015 was one of several wildfires Andy fought in the US and he later described the challenge as a “huge adrenaline rush” but “very hard work”.
Wildfires are going to get bigger, they’re going to get bigger, they’re going to get more intense and we need to prepare for that
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Andy has been unable to travel abroad to help firefighters this year, but knows that climate change will lead to more wildfires.
Last year alone there were 59,000 fires in the US, which destroyed 10.1 million acres compared to 50,500 fires and 4.7 million acres in 2019, a government report found.
Knowing firsthand the risks posed by wildfires, Andy calls for more funding and better resources to tackle the devastating fires that destroy lives and livelihoods.
Andy said: “Wildfires are going to be more, they’re going to get bigger, they’re going to get more intense and we need to prepare for that.
“We know it’s coming and we have no excuse so we need to prepare for it.”