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Where There's Smoke, There's Fire and Persistent Firefighters

June 29, 1989|THOMAS BECHER | Times Staff Writer

When firefighter John Morrill awoke in his sleeping bag around 7 a.m. Wednesday, he had a throbbing headache, aching feet and irritated eyes after fighting a forest fire the previous night.

But he wanted to head right back into Cleveland National Forest--where he had spent most of the night fighting a 7,000-acre blaze.

"When do we leave?" said Morrill, a San Bernardino volunteer called in to help fight the stubborn and remote two-county brush fire. "I want more action."

Like hundreds of fellow firefighters who camped out Wednesday at Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park, the command post of the fire east of San Juan Capistrano, Morrill said he is committed to firefighting despite having to work 12-hour shifts, usually amid dangerous conditions.

"Every day is different," Morrill said, his hair messy and his face darkened by soot. "That's what I like about the job."

About 1,000 firefighters, some flown in on chartered jets from Oregon and Washington state, set up camp at the park throughout the day, searching for any empty spot--a bench or a shady patch of grass--to serve as their home for at least until the end of the week, perhaps into the Fourth of July holiday, fire officials said.

"They give up so much," said Norm Machado, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

Crews from fire departments in Orange, Riverside and Los Angeles counties, the Forest Service, the California Department of Corrections and other national forests congregated in the park, about eight miles west of the fire, before being ferried to the front by bus.

The command post appeared overnight. Just 12 hours after a handful of Forest Service officials first gathered to take command of firefighting efforts under generator-powered lights, the park area was battle-ready, complete with newly installed telephone lines, latrines, trailers, drinking water and an outdoor cafeteria. There were dozens of vehicles, including television satellite trucks, and Red Cross volunteers used ham radios to overcome terrain that makes other forms of communication difficult.

Although Ortega Highway was closed to normal traffic, a steady stream of emergency vehicles made its way up the road and deeper into the rugged Santa Ana Mountains.

While a small army of airplane tankers and helicopters doused flames in places made otherwise inaccessible by the mountains, firefighting squadrons--each containing 15 to 20 men and women--cut swaths through the thick brush, put out spot fires and protected buildings from advancing flames.

Other crews watched as the flames crackled through valleys and directed pilots overhead to areas that needed to be sprayed with water or fire-retardant chemicals.

Forest Service engineer Louie Nuno was perched on some rocks overlooking a valley next to the road, worried that an advancing wall of flames could leap over a fire line that one crew had worked all night to establish.

"If we lose this, all our work goes to pot," Nuno said, later watching one of eight tankers swoop in to temporarily douse the flames.

Farther along Ortega Highway, which runs through the Cleveland National Forest, one group of firefighters sprayed water on a spot fire sparked by embers.

"Move!" the unit's commander screamed. "This can't spread." Firefighters erased the danger within minutes.

Jim Jimenez, chief of the Lassen National Forest Hot Shots, an elite firefighting team based in Susanville, Calif., arrived with his crew at the command post Wednesday afternoon.

Jimenez said forest firefighters are a unique bunch, gladly willing to work another shift after being led to near-exhaustion just hours earlier.

"It's fun fighting fires," he said before heading into the forest. "It's great seeing these rascals die down knowing you played a part in it."

Jimenez, like members of many so-called "hot shot" crews, travels from forest fire to forest fire throughout the United States and parts of Canada. The crews, made up of students and seasonal workers, are specially trained. They are disciplined as a unit, walking in single file, and taught that safety comes first.

"No acre of land is worth a life," Jimenez said.

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