Sunday, August 7th, 2016
I woke up late this morning after sleeping in quite a bit from yesterday’s late night haul from Kingman, AZ. I took a look out the window of my second floor bedroom as I always do in search of interesting cloud patterns. I was greeted by a rather large plume of smoke looming dreadfully in the distance somewhere around the San Bernardino mountains. I knew exactly where I would be headed today, so I grabbed my gear together and took a look at the local news. I had learned that the fire was on the east side of Silverwood Lake and that a section of highway 138 was shut down from Old Mill Rd. in Crestline to the highway 173 junction point in Summit Valley. I was pretty hungry so I hopped in the Starship and decided that I needed to make a food stop before I hauled off in that direction. I had a feeling it was going to be a rather long day.
“This was the view I woke up to this morning.”
I drove toward Summit Valley Rd. where I would try to hit the 173 east at the 138 closure. The detail of the inferno was becoming a lot more clear as I approached from this direction. Unfortunately, by the time I hit the 173 junction, the police and Cal Trans had already shut down all access to the 173 east on top of the 138 stretch around Silverwood Lake. My plan was foiled temporarily, so I turned around quickly and took Summit Valley Rd. back and made my way toward the spillway at Deep Creek via Arrowhead Lake Road.
“This was the eastbound view of the fire when heading to the 173 via the 138 which unfortunately was closed as well.”
“I stopped at a Joshua tree patch near Ranchero Rd. to get an establishing shot of the fire while heading to Deep Creek.”
“It was looking like Arrowhead Lake Rd was going to take me directly to the fire.”
“End of the line. This was as far as I was going to get on Arrowhead Lake Rd.”
Road Closure at the Saddle Dike Embankment (a.k.a. The Spillway)
As soon as I spotted this closure, I turned my rig around and parked off the side of the highway where quite a few others had parked as well. There were quite a lot of spectators lined up along the ridge of the hill above. I started to gather a few essentials along with my camera pack and some water. It was a hot day and the smoke overhead seemed to be stretched out in a northeast pattern across the skies over Apple Valley. Reports were being made that significant amounts of ash had started to blanket Apple Valley residents and I imagine that the folks in Barstow were wondering what on earth was happening.
“I snatched up a parking spot as soon as I turned around from the road closure, perfect timing too as It was the last spot!”
“As I started to hike the steep hill to the ridge, Cal Fire’s S-2T #76 turbine air tanker flew by overhead, it’s belly discolored by fire retardant.”
“A group of onlookers gathered at the top of the hill to get a better look at the fire.”
“There were others on the hill opposite of the highway as well.”
I stayed at the top of that ridge for about a good 45 minutes. There were countless aircraft flying around the valley below dropping tons of red flame retardant ahead of the fire. The Wind was blowing at a steady 15mph with gusts of up to 30 mph. The direction of the wind was northeast which placed the hill I was standing on and the surrounding region in the direct path of the blaze. The smoke was getting intense and you could smell it in the air, but it was not enough to deter anyone, at least not yet.
“The biggest tanker of the fleet, a modified DC-10 by 10 Air Tanker Carrier, with the call number ‘910’ made a few big drops.”
“Firefighters meet up below at the Deep Creek trailhead and the old 173 mountain road access to Lake Arrowhead.”
“The fire was steadily making it’s way to the Saddle Dike Embankment or as we locals call it, The Spillway.”
“Dynamic Aviation’s Cessna Citation lead plane flew by at high speed and use a smoke blast to mark where the air tankers needed to drop their payload.”
“Things were getting intense and the smoke was finally starting to block out the sun.”
“The pilots of Aero Flite’s RJ85 air tanker definitely had their hands full with the intensifying smoke.”
When things were getting bad, the sheriff finally showed up and told everyone on his loudspeaker to evacuate the area. A few decided to stay, but the sheriff got back on his loudspeaker and stated that anyone who did not evacuate would have their vehicle towed. I set off for a small field at the foot of the peak where I was standing. There were others that had congregated there as well to continue watching the firefight. It seemed like the fire had picked up speed and approached the spillway faster than anticipated.
“Just about everyone was vacated from the ridge we were standing on and just in time too as the smoke increased.”
“The empty field below made a pretty good place to continue watching the fire.”
“I took a short video of the vast smoke pillar beyond the ridge I was standing on a moment ago.”
“A Coulson C-130 #131 turbine air tanker fights for altitude after a fire retardant drop.”
Retreat to the Joshua Inn
The smoke from the fire was coming up and over the Saddle Dike Embankment and filling the areas just below the spillway including the small field that I was taking photos at. I felt that it was time to make a hasty retreat. The smoke was getting a bit too much to handle, so I fired up the Starship and decided to drive a little further back to get away from the smoke and that’s when I saw a meet up of onlookers at the Joshua Inn off Arrowhead Lake Rd. This is where I would park and set up shop for the next round of shots. There is the possibility that we may get evacuated from this area as well, but I had to stick around for more shots of that DC-10.
“On the way to Joshua Inn, there was already a road closure for oncoming traffic.”
“Dynamic Aviation’s Cessna Citation lead plane blasted by overhead again after marking another drop zone, I knew just where to point the camera now.”
“The It flew right back into the chaos.”
“BLM Fire crews were heading to the scene in the direction which I just came from.”
“The DC-10 started circling around very low for a drop after the lead plane made the drop zone mark.”
“There were trucks lined up along the hills next to the Joshua Inn, but I had to stay for a shot of the incoming DC-10 drop.”
“The DC-10 came swooping in very low and dropped a large payload of flame retardant nearby.”
“The closest shot I could get was amazing, I can only imagine if I had a 400mm lens on me.”
“Coulson’s C-130 #131 turbine air tanker makes another drop shortly after the DC-10 just south of our location.”
“I felt that I had spent enough time at the Inn, it was time to get to higher ground.”
“I headed up the hill for a better vantage point and saw this fellow camped out with a high powered telescope, Apple Valley is seen in the distance.”
View from the top of the Hill
I joined a small group of people at the top of the hill and noticed that one of the guys had a scanner that was locked into the radio chatter that was going on with the police and fire department. I asked if he got any details as to what started the fire, he said that they kept going on about how a “Side by Side” like a Polaris Razor was riding in a section of trail that was not intended for OHV use. He says that it broke down and caught fire which is what started all this. If that’s true, I bet the guy driving it is going to face some extremely serious charges. He had also mentioned that he heard the fire department discussing the possibility of lighting the entire spillway ridge line on fire to create a suppression fire. The Pilot Fire had not destroyed any homes or structures just yet, but this was getting bad and the fire was slowly making it’s way near hundreds of homes on the mesa in the southern Hesperia region as well as residents of the Deep Creek region.
“The view was pretty clear at the top of the hill.”
“Up here, the planes passed so close you felt as though you could almost touch them. This is Cal Fire’s Grumman/Marsh S-2F3AT Turbo Tracker air tanker #72.”
“Everyone was watching the 10 Air Tanker Carrier’s DC-10 come back in for another drop.”
“I got a good glimpse at it’s underbelly as it flew really low overhead.”
“The places where I had been were now enveloped in smoke and there were drops happening all over.”
“The sun was setting and so it was time to head back down the trail to the Joshua Inn.”
“On the way down the dirt trail, I got a preview of the actual flames.”
It was dark when I got to the Joshua Inn parking area where I was set up before. I could see the flames and the true nature of this massive wildfire burning in the distance. I left my damn tripod at home so I tried to snap a few handheld shots to no avail. I instead re positioned the Starship and dropped the tailgate. I placed my camera bag on the tailgate and used a rag to mold a wedge and help keep my 5D MKII with my 70-200mm balanced. I had to engage the mirror lock up for an extra steady shot and then fired away with a remote release.
“Some dark footage of fire crews driving into the danger zone.”
“The images I was getting were very surreal.”
“This was going to be a long night for the fire crews.”
I wrapped up my shots for the day and started my way back home. The fire continued to burn out of control and by the following evening, reports were stating that the fire had burned over 6,300 acres with only 5% containment, but intermittently due to the high winds. The fire had jumped many of the fire lines and there was an estimated 500 firefighters on site with more on the way from northern California. The Pilot Fire is one of the nastiest fires I’ve seen in all my 24 years of being a Mojave Desert resident. 5,200 homes including many in Hesperia are under threat now and evacuations are in full effect.
Unfortunately, the alleged “Godzilla” sized El Nino of 2016 did a major disservice to Southern California by leaving us high and dry while dumping rain everywhere else instead. This combined with the everlasting drought has turned Southern California into kindling for disasters like this. So far no homes or structures are reported destroyed, but there is now a high alert for over 500 homes in Hesperia south of Ranchero Rd. Hopefully the tide will turn and give the fire crews what they need to extinguish this terrible blaze. With that said, that about wraps up this venture for now…
Until the next travel blog, remember to get out there and “Shoot the Planet!”
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