Valley loans 650 to enormous battle

More than 650 people from the Northern San Joaquin Valley and foothills are fighting fires or maintaining order in Southern California.

Most fire departments have sent crews, engines and what-ever support they could offer.

About 400 soldiers with the Modesto-based 184th Infantry Battalion arrived in San Diego on Tuesday, said Sgt. Kara Green, a spokeswoman for the California National Guard.

Soldiers are helping evacuate people, secure homes from looters and provide relief to those displaced to the Del Mar Fairgrounds and Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego County, said Capt. Jeff Carillo of the 184th.

Many of the soldiers deployed to Southern California have served in Iraq. Skills gained there -- such as rescue operations, providing relief and policing operations -- will help in this mission, Green said.

Asked to compare his current assignment with Iraq, Lowell Barber of Oakdale said in one way, it's closer than you might expect. "The air quality is the same."

Ash fell like snow from the Southern California sky Wednesday as California State University, Stanislaus, student Dennis Sisneros, 21, looked out his family's Oceanside home windows. Sisneros' family is OK, but a wildfire never has been so close, he said.

"I haven't been outside because of the air. There is so much ash, cars leave tracks when they drive by," Sisneros said.

Five crews of inmates from Baseline Camp in Tuolumne County, 76 in all, are working on the Harris and Rice fires in San Diego County and the Grass Valley fire in San Bernardino County.

"The inmate firefighters are sort of your ground forces. It's very risky work," said Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The inmates are minimum security offenders generally convicted of crimes such as drug possession, she added.

Two captains and a chief from the Sierra Conservation Center near Jamestown, who help train inmates to fight fires, arrived in Southern California on Sunday after driving all night. They were up early Monday quelling hot spots that threatened to flare up near the Ba-rona Indian Reservation, said Capt. Paul Vizcarra of Ripon, whose strike team is working the Witch Creek fire in northern San Diego County. It is the largest of more than a dozen fires, having burned more than 200,000 acres.

"It's the nonglamorous part," Vizcarra said of rural fire suppression.

The Witch Creek fire has charred a swath from Santa Ysabel to Ramona, Rancho Bernardo, Poway and Escondido, where Vizcarra rested Wednesday night. The powerful Santa Ana winds coming from the east have pushed the fire toward the coast.

The Witch Creek fire is being compared to the 2003 Cedar fire, also in San Diego County, that burned 280,278 acres and killed 15 people.

Vizcarra worked that fire, too. The winds pushing the Witch Creek fire along are unsettlingly familiar, said Capt. Greg Harnage of Roseville, who is working with Vizcarra.

"The first day, there were a lot of wind changes. We were in an area that had active fires, but the main part of the fire had already gone through. As we saw with the Cedar fire, wind change can make it more dangerous," Harnage said.

Hot, dry wind can rekindle and carry embers for a mile, Vizcarra said.

Trying to suppress a threat drifting overhead and smoldering underfoot is exhausting, Vizcarra said.

"I'm looking down at the blisters on my feet and the blisters on my fellow captain's feet," he said. "We're tired."

Bee staff writer Roger Hoskins contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer Eve Hightower can be reached at ehightower@modbee.com or 578-2382.