- City Manger plays chief and orders firefighters to stand down During Witch Creek fire.
- Firefighters rest while High Valley burns.
- Public Calls for City Manger to resign.
- Firefighters free speech muzzled by memo
- Citizens buying own firefighting gear
Firemen speak out on Poway commands -
Poway's firefighters sat outside the rural neighborhood of High Valley as it burned in last year's Witch Creek fire because they were ordered to stay out by the city manager.
The community lost 28 of 215 homes, and residents accused the Poway Fire Department of abandoning them.“I need to take responsibility to make sure our firefighters' name is kept intact,” he said.
City Manager Rod Gould acknowledged Tuesday that he made the call to stay out of High Valley after consulting his division chiefs and assessing the needs of Poway, a city of 50,500.
“We had come to a decision the day before that if we didn't have enough resources to protect the rest of the city, and if High Valley goes up, we would not protect High Valley,” Gould said. “That's a choice I would make again and again and again.”
He said he wanted to cut the fire off at Espola Road, which runs north to south in that part of the city.
Gould said firefighters had worked 50 to 60 hours and needed to be replaced by mutual aid fire crews, slow in arriving because Southern California was burning, he said.
In San Diego County, there were five major wildfires burning the week of Oct. 22. More than 1,700 homes were lost and 368,000 acres burned.
“To have sent our depleted resources into High Valley ... could have risked losing thousands of homes (elsewhere in Poway) and firefighters' lives,” Gould said.
Swanson said firefighters were tired but were ready to go.
“Rod Gould needs to trust his fire chiefs and the fire chiefs need to trust his captains (in the field),” he said.
Soon after firefighters spoke up, the Fire Department issued a memo Wednesday, telling its staff to leave comments on High Valley to Safety Services Director Mark Sanchez and the city manager.
High Valley is roughly bounded by Golden Sunset Lane to the south, Lake Poway to the north, Espola Road to the west and Running Deer Terrace to the east. It has one paved road linking it to the rest of Poway.
The two-lane High Valley Road, crisscrossed by overhead utility lines, is so narrow that city's fire marshal once said big firetrucks cannot turn around quickly if a fire changes direction suddenly.
The Witch Creek fire entered Poway from the northeast on Oct. 22. The city ordered High Valley to be evacuated, began calling all 44 firefighters to duty in Poway and elsewhere, and requested 100 mutual aid firetrucks and tankers, division chief Jon Canavan said.
About 4 a.m. the next day, the fire reached High Valley, but firefighters were told to stay away. At 9:30 a.m., when weather conditions had improved, the call was made to dispatch 16 mutual aid fire crews and an airplane to go High Valley. Most of the Poway fire crews were relieved, Canavan said.
In Ed Muscat's Eastvale Road neighborhood, he did not see the first firetruck – and it was from Cal Fire – until 11:30 a.m.
“It was too late,” said Muscat, who drove through barricades at 8:30 a.m. and spent 13 hours fighting fires with his sons to save his four-acre home.
He said city leaders made the wrong decisions.
Deputy Mayor Bob Emery disagrees.
“There is no home worth a firefighter's life,” he said.
After a story appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune last week, detailing the homeowners' anger, two firefighters agreed to break their silence and speak out.
Mike Swanson, a 30-year Poway Fire Department veteran who retired in December, said firefighters did not want to give up High Valley during the critical 5½ hours when the fire first hit on Oct. 23.
City administrators ordered them to stay out, Swanson said in an interview last week.
He and others in five firetrucks and tankers sat on Espola Road outside High Valley wondering why they couldn't fight small or residual fires in safe areas, which he did before the order came and he had to go back down the hill.
“I sat at the bottom of the hill for hours and hours. We had guys begging to go up there but the chief said no,” Swanson said. “We said, 'What do you mean? Why?' ”
Geoff Kamantigue, a firefighter and a director of the Poway Firefighters Association, said he, too, heard orders on his radio to stay out of High Valley.
To reassure residents, Gould said he will hold a meeting in High Valley in the next two months to discuss new fire-prevention measures, which include the use of fire-resistant building materials, tighter vegetation management and the recent purchase of mobile emergency pumps to boost water supply during firefighting.
Frustrated residents, however, are not easily pacified.
Joel Duncan, Tracey and Steve Sullivan are among those who want the city manager to resign. Duncan is polling his neighbors to find out if they feel Gould should go.Others, such as Ed Muscat and Karen Podvin, say they want to be trained as volunteer firefighters. And some, like Sandra Keithly, have amassed their own fire gear to do it themselves, an idea Gould advised against because of the danger.