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Hope and Faith in the Wildfire

Firefighters fighting the California wildfires find themselves trapped with only hope and faith to sustain them.

By Mitch Kahn, San Clemente, California

As appeared in

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.