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Labor Day Weekend Fire

by Russell Sipe

TV images of Labor Day Fire

LABOR DAY WEEKEND 1997

A large brush fire between Anza and Rancho California burned 1100 acres on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. While the Anza site was never in danger, flames could be seen on the hills west of Highway 371 and air tankers could be seen on the horizon fighting the fire through much of the afternoon. By late afternoon a thick cloud of smoke obscured the Sun and rained ash over the site.

I first noticed a small puff of smoke in the west shortly after 11 AM while riding into Anza with Russ and Stephanie Tanton to get supplies. By the time we headed back the smoke had grown into a dirty "thunderhead". Distances can be deceiving. It looked to us as if the fire was in the Wilson Valley Road area near Highway 371. In reality the eastern edge of the fire was in the Sage area several miles west of Highway 371.

All though the afternoon we watched as the smoke grew and began to drift towards us on a steady easterly breeze. By 2 PM the site reeked of smoke and ash began to fall. We had to face the possibility that we would be clouded out in a most unusual fashion. We could see clear skies to the south over Palomar Mountain and clear skies to the north. But the west was filled with dark smoke, the skies overhead and stretching to the east were dirty brown.

Time to pack it in As amateur astronomers do when faced with the possibility of being clouded out, we speculated on whether conditions would possibly clear for evening viewing. Was the fire under control? Would the wind turn around to the west as Wayne Johnson suggested often happens at Anza. If it did would the smoke clear out before dark. I called the U.S. Forest Service and got the bad news. The fire was not under control. So at 4:30 PM we broke camp and made our way down the hill.

From the old Bergstrom Museum on Highway 371 (the giant lizard in the sky) people were lined up watching the air tankers attack the fire.

Air tankers attack!

On the drive home we were escorted past Forest Service and CDF fire engines that were staged at various spots along Highway 79. At one point there were more than a dozen fire engines off the road in a staging area on the south side of Highway 79. Looking to the right you could see the fire stretch out for several miles in the hills above Vail Lake. I reached Temecula shortly after sunset and saw a most incredible sight in my RV rear view mirrors: golden glowing lines of fire leaping into black skies that slowly turned into the dark blue of deep twilight. I have never noticed the sky being so dark blue. It was obvious that the black clouds created the contrast needed to really see the dark blue nature of the twilight.

Looking back into the maelstrom According to a U.S. Forest Service representative there were evacuations in the Sage area and that a couple of structures had burned. Later that night on the news it was reported that no homes were lost.
Fortunately this fire did not cause in major losses or injuries. But now the cloud gods have found yet another means to frustrate us in our quest for clear skies. Oh well, see you up there next month If you smell smoke it will probably only be my trailer being unpacked of its ash ridden contents.

You will understand what is on my mind if, in the future, you were to get an email from me signed,

Clear and Smokeless Skies,
Russell Sipe


Westbound on Highway 79


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