Firefighters Take Giant Steps to Tackle Blaze on Moon-Like Highway Terrain

It could be the surface of the moon.

The rocky landscape along Highway 94 – closed to all but emergency personnel as the Harris Fire continues to flare along the Mexican border – is covered in shades of ash: white, grey and black.

Swaths of scorched earth lick the pavement, signs of battles won by hundreds of firefighters who have struggled to tame this beast since the first kindling burned on Sunday.

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PHOTOS: Residents Return

More than 600 homes and at least five lives have been lost in this stretch of mountainous terrain some 19 miles southeast of San Diego. The air, still sweet with the smell of burnt sage, makes the eyes red and itchy.

At the San Diego Rural Fire Department, the exhausted responders grab handfuls of donated eye drops and lip balm as they rush back to fight the flames. This normally four-man station has become a base camp for strike teams, which use the engine house for bathroom and food breaks. Many of the workers have been on for 72-hour stretches and at least one has lost two of her own homes to the blaze.

"Pretty much everybody that's come through here, it's just beat down," said Cal Fire Capt. Matt Cox. "They are exhausted and I'll tell you what, as exhausted as these guys are, lying on the concrete and going to sleep, it ain't bothering them."

The Harris Fire flames moved quickly uphill sending embers scattering throughout the region, incinerating 80,000 acres of land thus far. The fire was only 20 percent contained as of Thursday night.

It was among these rocks Thursday that Border Patrol agents discovered the bodies of four illegal immigrants killed when they were trapped by flame while fleeing the Harris Fire.

Stray animals roam the hillsides, darting among shrived cacti and burnished beer cans.

"I like to be able to come out here and get away from the cement jungle and see all the green and all the wildlife," said Joey Goodyear, a San Diego Rural firefighter. "You see the hawks swooping; you see deer and everything else. Now everything's just – it's a moonscape basically."

California Highway Patrol has blocked access along Highway 94 for most residents. Only Border Patrol, Animal Control, utility and law enforcement officials have access to this smoldering landscape where, miraculously, homes rise from the mountains, unscarred by fire.

The devilishly hot Santa Ana winds weren't all to blame for the destruction. It might have been less had the fire code clearance guidelines been strictly followed around homes, Cox said.

But having seven counties battling mega-blazes at once didn't help either.

"When you get large fires like this, you get multiple large fires all over the state, you just can't have adequate resources to defend everything," he said.