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War and Wildfire: Almost 40 Years on the Front Lines

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De Luz Fire Chief Mike Manchor
De Luz Volunteer Fire Chief Manchor beside his patrol engine, which was provided by the San Diego New Car Dealers Association.

After five days keeping Camp Pendleton’s Roblar II Fire outside the De Luz boundaries, firefighters heard an urgent call from Paradise Fire Incident Command. “We need more engines NOW!”

The dispatch response was chilling. “There are none available.”

De Luz Fire Chief Mike Manchor quickly assembled half of his  Department’s  force into a five-engine quick response task force and convoyed the aging apparatus and firefighters (19-80 year olds) 45 miles to Valley Center. Santa Ana winds rapidly spread fire embers, igniting dry vegetation ahead of the main flames. The sky was brown and thick with smoke. “It reminded me of 12 years earlier when I led a convoy through the burning Kuwaiti Oil Fields during Operation Desert Storm,” says Manchor. “But now, instead of being responsible for a dozen highly-trained combat Marines, I had a score of volunteer firefighters to lead.”

Paradise Fire, 2003
Chief Manchor inside vehicle 8862 as a 500-gallon tank of racing fuel explodes during the Paradise Fire

The Paradise Command Center quickly assigned their task force to the North Lake Wolford area, but fire had blocked the road to their assigned area. Families and homeowners ran down driveways, terrified. They grabbed onto the fire engine mirrors and hung off the engines crying, “Please save our homes!”

It must have been a heart-wrenching and frightening scene. But Manchor is thoughtful when asked how he felt. “John Wayne once said ‘Real courage is being scared to death yet saddling up anyway.’ Being scared for myself was replaced by concern for my crews and for these people. I knew I had to lead my men and women into that firestorm from the front.”

De Luz’s small agile engines were well suited for firefighting in these kinds of neighborhoods–steep, unpaved driveways, low tree branches, and drainage culverts that might have buckled under heavier engines. “I gave the order on the radio, ‘we’ll make our stand here, disperse and save what you can.’ I watched in the rear view mirror my small engines racing up driveways and going into action like I trained them.”

De Luz crews spent 11 hours in that neighborhood that day.  The fire approached the crews three times from three different directions. “We stayed until all homes were safe and then limped home on fumes. We were exhausted, but we saved 23 homes.”

The next day they were dispatched to the Cedar Fire. Over an eleven day period they fought three major fires. Then on Halloween, it started to rain, and it was over…  this time.

Because of their dedicated service during the Paradise Fire, County Supervisor Bill Horn recognized the De Luz firefighters during his annual State of North County Address, and Valley Center awarded them and the other firefighters there that day the Meritorious Fire Service medal.

First he served his country

Mike Manchor never played fireman as a kid; he played soldier. He tried to enlist in the Marine Corps at 16 by lying about his age, but was caught and sent home. At 17 he enlisted in the Navy and worked to earn his officer’s commission.

On his first ship he trained extensively for close-quarter firefighting–flight deck and engine rooms. He spent time as a Surface Warfare officer, then volunteered for an “arduous sea duty” tour as Officer in Charge on a 710 foot Fleet Oiler. His crew of 35 sailed all over the Pacific to the Persian Gulf, almost always 1,000 yards behind an aircraft carrier or battleship.

At the end of this sea tour, while floating off the coast of Iran during Desert Shield, Manchor had to select his next tour. Being certain that a full-scale war was imminent, he volunteered once again, this time as a Marine Corps Naval Gunfire and Artillery Forward Observer/Forward Air Controller with The First Marine Division.

After a quick eight-week training course at  Coronado, Manchor returned in time for Operation Desert Storm to lead a team of ten Marines as Forward Observers assigned to a Marine combat infantry battalion. “We were in the task force that went into the Kuwait desert through the burning oil fields all the way to Kuwait City…. The Paradise Fire reminded me a lot of that.”

Chief Manchor's photo of Desert StormChief Manchor’s photo of the Kuwait oil fields during Operation Desert Storm.

In 1991, he returned to Camp Pendleton with six years left until retirement, Manchor stumbled upon a small avocado farm for sale by Ross Lake in De Luz and bought it.

He volunteer for three more tours with the Marines, serving as an Operations Training Planning Officer, Marine/Navy Parachutist, Forward Air Controller and Fire Support Coordinator.

Then he served his Community

Up until the 1990’s, De Luz’s nearest CalFire  Station was manned only six months out of the year. “A fire starts on Pendleton about every other week, and the smoke would roll right over us. In the past, if a fire broke out in the Canyon, neighbors would race to the smoke and try to put out small fires with rakes and shovels before they got to be big fires,” Manchor says.

But the “Minute-Man” concept didn’t always work. In early 1996, 20 neighbors battled a structure fire for hours with only garden hoses and fire extinguishers.  They had no way to hook up to the fire hydrant 100 feet away and so they lost the structure. It was then that Manchor decided that he needed to build a fire department to protect the community, but it would have to be built from scratch.

No Easy Task

De Luz’s Volunteer Fire Department started with a 40-year-old pickup a 115-gallon water tank, a pump, and 100 feet of beat up fire hose that Cal Fire had left behind.

His first fire engine was a 40-year-old pickup that Manchor bought for $200. He added a 115-gallon water tank, a pump, and 100 feet of beat up fire hose that Cal Fire had left behind after a fire. Through many swap meet searches, he bought used CB radios, firefighter clothing, and old fire equipment.  A car alarm was used as a siren. He convinced eight neighbors to join him. He still smiles at the picture. “It didn’t look like much, but it proved effective.  We put out a lot of smaller fires with it; many before Cal Fire arrived.”

At one point Cal Fire asked him to stop or he would be arrested, due to liability issues. He didn’t. Too many people had come to depend on his group to defend their 400 homes.

In 1999, The San Diego Regional Fire Foundation became the first entity to make a donation to support the De Luz Fire Department. These donations included $5,000 and two seven-year-old SDG&E utility trucks which were converted into De Luz’s first real fire trucks. “This was the ‘jump start’ we needed. At this point, the community dug in and poured their hearts into building their Volunteer Fire Department. “

“The trucks SDG&E donated were directly responsible for saving more than 100 homes.” ~De Luz Fire Chief Mike Manchor

During the Gavilin Fire in 2002, De Luz Volunteers had six emergency fire apparatus with 24 firefighters. They were credited with saving five homes including their local Cal Fire Station. Shortly after that, with the liability issues resolved, the County’s mood changed. County Supervisor Bill Horn awarded them a grant of $150,000 for a brush engine. With careful planning, Manchor was able to buy five used engines, 30 new VHF radios, and a 30- by 50-foot steel building to house the engines. Manchor donated an acre of land to hold them. They became officially recognized as the De Luz Volunteer Fire Department.

Rice Fire, 2007

One of Manchor’s most dramatic stories is from the 2007 Rice Fire, which burned so fierce in eastern Fallbrook that Manchor received an urgent, drive-by request from a Board  member of Fallbrook’s North County Fire to “send everything!” Manchor quickly assembled another five-engine task force and raced to the scene.  The Incident Commander split them up sending three engines to Steward Canyon and left Manchor with a water tender, a small patrol engine and six of his volunteer firefighters. They made their stand inside the Valley Oaks Mobile Home Park just as it was about to be hit by the rapidly spreading fire.

The Park was deserted. They were the only ones there to defend the 220 homes. “This happens on many Santa Ana wildfire events, because the initial attack happens at the same time many other fires are developing, causing fire assets to be stretched very thin.”

The six volunteers and two engines spread out across the eastern perimeter of the large mobile estate in two-man teams. For eight hours they battled the blaze using garden hoses, shovels, and fire hoses in the Santa Ana wind-driven flames. In the end 112 homes were saved in that Park, which would have otherwise all been lost.

Volunteering

Manchor is an unpaid volunteer.  He has never received payment for all that he has done over these 19 years. He is also a farmer. Three days a week he tends, by himself, to his 1,500 fruit trees and sells his crops at the local farmers markets with his wife Catherine and daughter Catrina. He intends to spend the rest of his life in De Luz, and has no intention to ever retire.

“This community keeps me going, and when you find a community that fits you ….Stay there “. He figures the De Luz Volunteer Fire Department has saved a total of 218 homes since their inception. Of the 430 homes and 1,500 residents living there that rely on him, he is adamant. “I will never let them down”.

 

Thank the De Luz Volunteer Fire Department for all they have done!

To continue to serve their community, they need $6,000 to purchase:

  • Helmet lights: Help them see in dark places without having to hold flashlights. Frees up firefighter’s hands for rescues, medical emergencies, etc.
  • Hand spot lights for De Luz engines: Illuminates a larger area than flashlights can cover. Aids in looking for lost people or walking through brush to get to a fire.
  • Set of infra-red land zone strobe lights for the Chief’s vehicle: Used to assist helicopter landings or assist in a rescue.

Please,