Twenty East Valley firefighters knew they soon would get the call to rush to Southern California’s aid, where crews from all across the Southwest are battling wildfires that have forced the evacuation of more than 500,000 residents.
But until then, there was little to do but wait.
The call came Tuesday morning, and by the early afternoon fire engines from Apache Junction, Chandler, Guadalupe, Mesa and Tempe had gathered at the Arizona Mills shopping center before leaving for the San Diego area.
“Everyone here has been glued to CNN,” said Ward Fleger, a Mesa fire battalion chief. “We know they’re depleted on resources, and that gives us the opportunity to go and help.”
Thirty trucks from Arizona were dispatched Tuesday, bringing the state’s contribution to 44 engines and about 250 firefighters.
As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 600 square miles had burned and more than 500,000 residences were evacuated. The fires have left two dead and more than 40 injured — 16 of them firefighters.
Mike Farber, Apache Junction fire battalion chief, is the leader of the East Valley “strike force,” and his red pickup was at the head of the westward-bound convoy.
“There are a lot of firefighters from different agencies to keep on the same page, while protecting people’s property,” Farber said. “It’s an honor, actually, but it’s also a tremendous amount of responsibility. That’s where it gets stressful.”
The caravan’s destination was the town of Fallbrook, in northeast San Diego County — site of the Rice fire. There, they will use water and foam to protect homes.
Red Cross disaster workers from Arizona are also heading to the San Diego area.
Eight volunteers left Monday, and the Grand Canyon Chapter of the American Red Cross sent a dozen more Tuesday.
The volunteers include two husband-and-wife teams, who will drive Red Cross emergency response vehicles into the devastated area. The vehicles are used to distribute hot meals, water, cleaning supplies and hygiene items to those affected by disaster.
While the majority of volunteers were from Maricopa County, three came from Casa Grande, three from Prescott and one from Flagstaff.
Gov. Janet Napolitano said Arizona is ready to house evacuees, although the state has not yet been asked to do so.
The Yuma County Red Cross is prepared to accept 900 people at an armory, and an emergency operations center is geared up to coordinate in case assistance is requested.
In addition, the Yuma County Fairgrounds is available to house up to 191 horses, as well as other caged animals; a few horses have already been moved from fire scenes to the fairgrounds.
“It is gut-wrenching to see homes and businesses disappear in flames,” Napolitano said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families affected by this disaster.”
There are no plans to deploy Arizona-based National Guard personnel or equipment to California, said Jeanine L’Ecuyer, a spokeswoman for Napolitano. California authorities had not requested such assistance by midday Tuesday, she said.
The San Diego Chargers, smoked out of their practice facilities and probably their home stadium, called a local hotel in search of 100 rooms for five to seven nights.
The Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort had to turn down the request for rooms. The Chargers found rooms at the Sheraton Crescent Hotel in north Phoenix.
Tribune writers Paul Giblin and Donna Hogan contributed to this report.