Hope and Faith in the Wildfire
Firefighters fighting the California wildfires find themselves trapped with only hope and faith to sustain them.
Firefighters will tell you that a fire is like a living thing—a living engine of destruction. And each blaze has its own personality.
There's a sound and smell to a wildfire that you never forget. Burning brush and searing wind roaring like a jet engine. The acrid odor of scorched earth. Then there are the trapped and smoke-poisoned firefighters hunting for any avenue of escape. It's a world I know all too well.
I've battled many large blazes in my 18 years of firefighting. So I had no illusions about what was ahead when the call came last October to our Laguna Hills, California, station house.
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The Santiago Fire—one of the biggest in the history of Orange County—was burning out of control. I said the prayer I always do when I jump onto the fire engine—that my Engine 22 crew and I would be safe.
We raced toward the wall of smoke and flames that towered in the hills above us. Instinctively, I patted the shoebox-size pack hanging from my belt. Inside was an emergency fire shelter, a one-man fireproof tent lined with epoxy fiberglass. Every firefighter working the brush is required to carry one. It's a last resort when fire overwhelms you and there's no hope of escape. You pray you never have to use it.
We made our first stand in a residential area near the city of Irvine. For 23 hours straight we fought alongside other emergency units to keep a spur of the fire from destroying a neighborhood. Then the wind shifted.
"Redeploy to Santiago Canyon Road," the strike team leader ordered. "Do not let the fire cross that road!" We got there quickly. I had only one reaction: horror. Santiago Canyon Road zigzagged through a hilly canyon of oak trees, eucalyptus and six-foot-high native grasses and bushes.