Work of City Council member, neighbors helped save homes

Murrieta City Council member Alan Long stands among the ashes on the back of his hilltop property and points toward the charred hillside...

Murrieta City Council member Alan Long stands among the ashes on the back of his hilltop property and points toward the charred hillside from Thursday's Liberty Fire. Quick work by firefighters saved his home and his neighbor's home (background), but a resident on the other side of the hill wasn't as lucky.
Murrieta 24/7 photos: Doug Spoon

As a firefighter for nearly 25 years, Alan Long has seen virtually every kind of fire scenario imaginable. But until Thursday, he had never witnessed it in his own back yard.

Long, a Murrieta City Council member, had just come home from a three-day shift at the Anaheim Fire Department, where he helped coordinate coverage while his department provided assistance for the Thomas Fire in Ventura County. He had barely sat down when his wife came running into the house, telling him a nearby hill was on fire.

Since his childhood, Long has lived, played and worked in the hills above the rural stretch of Los Alamos Road east of Los Alamos Sports Park. His current home is midway up a steep slope along Los Alamos Heights Road. At the top of what the locals call Heritage Hill, he owns a large piece of property that he rents out.

"I’ve always said, the only that concerns me is if a fire starts at the base of one of these hills with the Santa Ana winds blowing," Long said Friday as he showed Murrieta 24/7 reporters the charred ground and brush surrounding the hilltop home, which was saved during the height of Thursday's Liberty Fire.

"Everything was in alignment for the worst case scenario. We talk about this in the fire department all the time. Where’s the sun, the aspect of the slope, the wind conditions? At 2 o'clock in the afternoon is when all your fuels are heated to their potential. You've got the direct sunlight on them, then a wind storm come through. This fire started about that time."

Alan Long stands between burned trees on his property and the home he owns on top of a hill above Los Alamos Road.

Fueled by winds up to 50 miles per hour, flames spread quickly Thursday afternoon from the fire's starting point less than a mile away from Long's home. The origin was a bit farther east on Los Alamos Road, near a dirt side road called Liberty Road. The cause of the fire has not been determined, but there are several high voltage power lines near that intersection.

Fueled by nearby vegetation and the high winds, the flames began moving, heading for two hills at the top of Crawford Canyon Drive. Eventually, a home at the top of one of those hills burned to the ground -- the only home lost in the fire, which covered 300 acres. Meanwhile, Long and his neighbors to the west were busy doing what they could to prepare while awaiting the firefighters.

"We were very fortunate with the work the fire department did and the community," Long said. "We had all the horses and animals evacuated well before they called for it. The residents did that among themselves. I went up to help Pablo (a neighbor) because he was going to get hit first. That home was saved. Really, everyone came together.

"I thought we lost our home at one point. One of these trees went up. I was over at Pablo’s, helping him, and I said 'I’m OK over here' because I’ve got a good visual of my place. But I had to leave when that tree went up. It was so smoky, all I saw was a flame that went higher than that pole. It was probably 10 to 20 feet higher than that pole. From that angle, I thought that was the house. So I ran over here. But we had a fire crew over here and we were OK."

Long said a major factor in saving his home was the large buffer around his property. Vegetation within several yards of the house is kept to a minimum. Although much of the ground around the hilltop home is charred and some bushes and small trees were burned, the flames never came real close to the structure.

Part of a fence at the edge of Alan Long's property is melted, and landscape beyond it is charred.

"There are a lot of things you can do to reduce the hazard," Long said. "You can see that here. There wasn’t an air tanker drop on this home; we had some measures in place. You've got to have a buffer. That means clearing brush, having closed eaves on your house, being careful where you store your material. A lot of people have wood stored up against their home.

"One of the biggest problems we see -- and it’s heartbreaking -- you save the home and the fire passes you by. But 20 minutes later, it’s on fire. That’s because the embers get up into homes that don’t have closed eaves. They get into the attic and smolder in the insulation. With the wind stoking it, it doesn’t start right away, but the attic soon starts on fire."

The fire was listed as 60 percent contained Friday afternoon, which has confused some residents who haven't seen any flames since Thursday night. Long took the time to explain what containment truly means.

"You have to have a line completely around the fire, whether that’s a hose line, a bulldozer line, a wet line, whatever," Long explained. "You want to make sure you surround the fire so there’s no creeping and smoldering that can possibly ignite again. This fire is somewhat out and forward progress has stopped, but that can change with the winds in a moment. That don't have a line completely around the fire area yet.

"They have adequate resources out here because the fire is not very active, but it's still smoldering. Depending on the slope, topography, size of the fire, they decide how much they want to mop up internally. Typically, it’s 100 feet in."

Long said that because of the heavy terrain in some parts of this area, firefighters have had to not only use bulldozers to create a perimeter around the fire area, but in some cases hand crews with hand tools to clear brush.

As Long watched some of those firefighters continue to work down the hill while Southern California Edison crews worked to repair power poles, he emphasized once again how homeowner preparation and the hard work of firefighters kept damage to a minimum.

"The firefighters did a great job," he said. "And everyone in the community who knew what to do, did it. Those who needed to get out, got out. We were prepared."

The hillside on the back side of Heritage Hill is charred and a fire engine continues to patrol, looking for hot spots.

Auxiliary firefighters rest while other firefighters keep watch for potential hot spots near Crawford Canyon Drive.

There is little left of the only home lost in the fire on a hilltop above Crawford Canyon Drive.


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