By Maj. Kim Holman, 146th Airlift Wing
/ Published October 02, 2016
CHANNEL ISLANDS AIR NATIONAL GUARD STATION, Calif. -- "The flames were four to six stories high, exploding huge trees as it came up over the hill. I knew it was time to get out of there," said Staff Sgt. Lee Hagan as he drove down the mountain Wednesday morning. In his truck Hagan had three dogs up front and four cats in the back, and flames were now less than two miles from his home in Wrightwood.
One day earlier Hagan had driven the same route to go to the store and had noticed a large plume of smoke, large enough to cause concern, and so he called a friend to see if he knew where the fire was.
"The smoke was out in the distance a ways, and he said it was way down by [interstate] 15, that it wasn't much of a threat," said Hagan who is a member of the 195th Combat Weather Flight with the 146th Airlift Wing near Point Mugu, California.
"But even by the time I came out of the store there was a huge change. The whole sky had turned brownish-orange and the air was thick with smoke and ash. People were starting to realize that they needed to get home, and traffic was really starting to back up. I knew if I wanted to get home I'd need to take a back way."
Wrightwood is a small resort ski town in the San Bernardino Mountains. The Blue Cut Fire tore up the hills the afternoon of Aug. 16, and thousands of residents were given mandatory evacuation orders, including Hagan and those in the town of Wrightwood.
"My wife and our new 2-month-old son are in Georgia right now with family while I am doing some work to get the house ready for them. We just bought it a few weeks ago," said Hagan.
It took Hagan 3½ hours to get home from the store; a drive that normally takes 35 minutes. State and local firefighters were there when he arrived in Wrightwood urging residents to leave, explaining that evacuation orders were on the way.
"I was able to get in, but very soon after, authorities began issuing mandatory evacuations for the town," Hagan said.
"That's when I started making calls," said Hagan. "I knew some of my friends were away on vacation and others were stuck at the bottom of the hill trying to get home."
"I asked them of course about their pets, if they had photos, other valuables or important documents that they wanted me to get for them. They told me to do whatever I needed to do to get in; to break a window or kick in the door, whatever I had to do to get their dogs and cats."
So Hagan started out to the houses gathering the valuables and the pets.
"The dogs were happy to see me and came along without any problem, of course," said Hagan. "The cats, however, did not like the idea of coming with me, and it took some creativity and patience to get them in the truck."
"Me coming through the window probably had them annoyed to start with, plus I was a stranger. As you can imagine, it was quite a spectacle. They did not want to go into their crates," Hagan said, describing the various methods he tried to lure them and squeeze them into the pet taxis. He has several scratches on his arms from the ordeal, but he says he knows that his friends would have done the same for him in this situation.
"While all this cat herding was going on, my wife was also texting me, very worried about the approaching fire. I was trying my best to text her back and put her worries to rest amidst all the ongoing chaos," Hagan explained.
"I was just so glad to just get them all out. Leaving them there was not an alternative, should the worst have happened," he said.
Hagan and his entourage left by morning, and judging by the looks of things, he said he felt certain the town would be destroyed by the fire. Firefighters were knocking door to door to make sure people were getting out as the skies continued to darken.
"I turned around one last time before driving out and took a few more pictures because I really wasn't sure if I would see the house again," said Hagan.
He took some last video of flames coming across the hills. "The sounds that a wildfire makes can be haunting; however, in this video, if you're listening closely, the noise in the background was all the dogs in the car panting, not the fire," he said.
Joint Force Headquarters for the National Guard in Sacramento called Hagan Wednesday morning to check on him, knowing that his area was being evacuated. They also told him that his unit's C-130 aircraft, equipped with MAFFS (Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems) had just been activated to support firefighting efforts across the state. The planes can drop 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in less than 5 seconds.
"I called my supervisor to check in and he asked me if I wanted to work the mission. I of course said 'Heck, yeah!'" said Hagan
"Even though I feel helpless, I know that Wrightwood is in the best hands," he said describing leaving his home and knowing the fire was close. "I have so much faith in those firefighters," he said.
"I know that helping out here as a weather technician I have first-hand knowledge of the unique weather behavior in my area as well as other mountainous areas where we have fires right now, so I can help make a difference," Hagan said. "I love being a part of the MAFFS and of the firefighting mission, working together with CAL FIRE and all our partner civilian agencies."
He handed off the pets to family and friends in the Riverside area and has been working at the Channel Islands Air National Guard Station located next to Point Mugu all week. Evacuation orders are now being lifted and Hagan left today to head back up to Wrightwood to see how his house and his town are doing. He has been told that amazingly the town has survived the fire for the most part, although nearly 100 homes in more rural areas were destroyed and an additional 213 structures were burned as well.
"The whole experience was very scary actually, and it makes you reflect on what's really important," said Hagan. "That fire came so fast and was way too close for comfort."