Fires are deja vu for Vail police chief |

Fires are deja vu for Vail police chief

Denis Poroy/APLuke Siller, 13, carries the steering wheel from his family's van as friend Ian Dominguez, 11, rear, helps out Thursday in Escondido, Calif.

VAIL ” Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger remembers a scene that looked like it came from a movie.

People were standing on their roofs, garden hoses in hand, as their homes burned beneath them. Broken gas lines spewed flames from houses.

It was 1993, and Henninger was a police officer who was helping evacuate homes during the devastating Laguna Beach fire. That fire, pushed by the Santa Ana winds, destroyed some 400 homes in an afternoon.

Sadly, that fire was small compared to what’s happening in Southern California now.

On Thursday, more than 482,000 acres were burning in a wide swath that extended from Ventura north of Los Angeles to near the U.S.-Mexico border.

In fact, one fire is burning near Irvine, where Henninger served with the police force. Henninger has been closely following the news about the fires and communicating with some of his friends whose homes are endangered by the fires.

“So far, none of my friends have lost anything,” Henninger said.

Henninger later went to work for the Laguna Beach Police Department, where he got an intimate understanding of the aftermath of a catastrophic fire.

“It goes from the shock of losing everything, then to blame,” Henninger said. “Then the whole rebuilding and dealing with insurance companies.”

Even five years after the fires, burned houses remained unbuilt, with just their foundations visible, he said.

Henninger’s experience in California showed him firsthand how important is it for governments and residents to be prepared for fires. There is potential for a big forest fire in Vail, he said.

“As we have more dying trees, our risk for a catastrophic fire significantly increases,” he said. “That’s why I’m so pleased with the work the town is doing building defensible space.”

The infestation of pine beetles is killing more and more trees around Vail. Some parts of the forest near West Vail are 90 percent dead because of the epidemic.

The town’s fire department is offering free visits to homeowners to advise them on how they can remove dead and dying trees from around their homes to reduce fire risk. In addition, the town, the county and the Forest Service are working to create a 200- to 300-foot layer of “defensible space” between homes and the forest to prevent the spread of fire.

Henninger also has developed an evacuation plan for the town of Vail. Residents could be notified to evacuate via text message, phone, by a knock on the door from a police officers or via loudspeakers from a passing fire truck.

As of Thursday, many of the Southern California fires still raged and were not close to being contained, with thousands of homes in danger. Only 2,500 people were taking shelter in Qualcomm Stadium, which had held more than 10,000 at the height of the evacuations.

Three people had been killed by the fire, while seven other deaths were connected to the blazes because the people who died were evacuees.

Even though Vail is somewhat prepared for a big fire, the events in Southern California remind Henninger how much more work needs to be done here. Vail needs to continue to coordinate with the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, he said, and homeowners need to make sure there’s “defensible space” around their homes.

“Watching the video on TV just shows how overwhelming it can be,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Staff Writer Edward Stoner can be reached at 748-2929 or

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