I almost burned alive tackling devastating wildfire as we waded through 'Armageddon' flames trying to save people
AS another terrifying wildfire tears through California, engulfing 8,000 acres and causing mass evacuations, one Brit will remember the moment he was nearly burned alive.
Ordinarily, Andy Elliott, a firefighter from Dorset, would be across the pond to help to tackle some of America's most devastating blazes.
But due to travel restrictions, he's unable to join the 200 firefighters charged with putting out the Alisal fire, in Santa Barbara, which broke out on Monday.
Strong winds blowing up to 70mph and dry woods that acted as a tinderbox for the flames have only worsened what was already described as a "hectic fire season".
Andy knows these conditions all too well from his 38 years as a firefighter – especially while tackling the 2015 Valley Fire in Lake County, California, which almost claimed his life.
He spoke exclusively to The Sun about the terrifying clash between man and natural disaster.
Waiting for death
There was no escape, all they could do was wait for the ferocious flames that had devoured the forest, buildings and gas canisters to close in on them.
Some firefighters cried, others made final calls to family members but Andy – a retained firefighter who is called in to help for emergencies – sat still in a trance, staring as the fire burned closer.
Helicopters were unable to reach them due to the blaze’s intensity and despite doing all they could to limit the fire from spreading they did not know whether it was enough.
After accepting they could die, each crew member took a final photograph of themselves in front of the wildfire to accompany what they thought were the last messages they would ever send.
Now whenever Andy sees that picture of himself, standing in front of the smoke-blackened skies and amber inferno, he smiles and refers to it as “my victory photograph”.
The fire was started by a spark from a faulty hot tub, which combined with extremely hot and dry weather conditions, developed into a 33-day blaze that killed four, destroyed 1,955 buildings and torched 76,000 acres of land.
Andy was driving through a nearby valley when he received his first call for help that day and seconds later noticed a giant “column of smoke” in the distance.
He told The Sun: “We could immediately see it, thick dark smoke rising and increasing in size very, very rapidly.
“The fire behaviour was like something I’ve never seen before and never seen since.
“There was almost a horizontal vortex, like a fire tornado on its side, running down the valley pushing huge columns of smoke ahead of it.
“It was driven by very, very powerful winds and was travelling at a pace that was not survivable, nobody could have stood in front of that fire.”
On TV, the public watched as helicopters dropped water and fire retardant on the flames – but Andy insisted the real hard work was done on the ground.
His team spent hours ‘cutting line’ – where firefighters remove all vegetation to create a fireproof boundary and prevent the flames from reaching more fuel.
During the efforts, four firefighters were badly burned after they became trapped and were forced to take cover under their fire shelters and allow the flames to burn over them.
Andy said: “If you can imagine a foil sleeping bag that you climb into that’s the best way I can describe it – they offer limited protection, so it’s a desperate time if you need to climb into a fire shelter.
“All four of these people received very serious burns, some of them were career-changing and life-changing and they were in a very sorry state when I first came across them.
“Later that same day, I probably came as close as I ever have to a serious injury or potentially losing my life in a wildfire.”
The crew had been working near a fire station when the flames circled around them and there was no possibility for helicopters to airlift them to safety.
There reaches a point when you've done all you can do…you know you’ve got no escape, nobody’s coming to your assistance
In video footage, which shows the perilous pink and blue flames that engulfed trees and land, Andy can be heard saying: “We are now officially surrounded.”
After attempting to curtail the blaze and set their own fire in a bid to redirect the inferno, the crew gathered in a safe spot – a helipad on the top of a hill.
Andy recalled: “We could hear gas tanks exploding from the properties around us, many of my colleagues and myself really felt that our life was in danger at that point.
“There reaches a point when you’ve done all you can do – cut all the lines you can cut and burned out all you can burn – and you know you’ve got no escape, nobody’s coming to your assistance.”
The thick black smoke choked their lungs, caused their eyes to stream and made their noses run but all they could do was accept their fate – good or bad.
Andy said: “You are in that fight or flight kind of mode. We had done all the fighting we could do, we had no option of running away, we just had to sit and wait and let this thing run past us.
“My friends and colleagues found this very, very difficult. They were thinking of their families, messaging their families… for some of them, it was very emotional.
“My colleagues asked me if I would take their photographs of them to send off to their partners [along] with what they thought may well have been their final messages.
“They insisted on taking my photograph, which I still have, and it's actually my screensaver on my computer.
“It’s a photograph that I have started to call ‘my victory photograph’ because it very well could have been the last photo that was taken of me.”
In the image, Andy holds a pickaxe in his right hand and is mere metres away from the orange flames and thick smoke.
It was like driving into Armageddon, the stickers on the vehicle were peeling off and you could smell the paint getting hot with the car as you were driving down the road
Fortunately, the firefighters’ efforts paid off and the flames passed around them – but their day was far from over.
Within hours of heading to nearby Middletown, which was half-destroyed, they were dispatched to evacuate residents just ahead of the fire’s path.
Andy recalled: “A community we knew was in immediate danger so we had to chase the fire and… to do that we had to drive through the fire.
“It was like driving into Armageddon, the stickers on the vehicle were peeling off and you could smell the paint getting hot with the car as you were driving down the road.
'If you don't leave, you will die'
“We would come across cars that had been abandoned [and] cars that had been burned out. We had to stop and check every car to make sure there was nobody there.
“Every burned-out car you expect the worst when you open the car [door], fortunately, everybody somehow managed to escape.”
They reached the community and raced from door to door to give the “blunt instruction” to locals: “Your life is in immediate threat, if you don’t leave you will die.”
The Valley Fire in 2015 was one of many wildfires Andy battled in America and later he described the challenge as a “huge adrenaline rush” but “very hard work”.
Wildfires are going to become more frequent, they're going to become larger, they’re going to become more intense and we need to prepare for that
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Andy’s he’s been unable to travel overseas to help firefighters this year but knows more wildfires will happen due to climate change.
Last year alone there were 59,000 fires in America, which destroyed 10.1 million acres, compared with 50,500 fires and 4.7 million acres burnt in 2019, a government report found.
Knowing of the risk caused by wildfire first hand, Andy has called for more funding and better resources to combat the devastating blazes that ruin lives and livelihoods.
Andy said: “Wildfires are going to become more frequent, they're going to become larger, they’re going to become more intense and we need to prepare for that.
“We know it’s coming and we have no excuse so we need to prepare for this.”
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