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Deaths of 2 Firefighters in Altadena Still Mystery : Investigation: Co-workers at Crew Camp Two are still in shock over 'typical' blaze that turned deadly. Two remain hospitalized.

August 26, 1993|ANDREW LePAGE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN GABRIEL VALLEY — Stricken with shock and sorrow in the wake of last week's typical-turned-deadly brush fire in Altadena, firefighters at Crew Camp Two in La Canada Flintridge struggled to get on with business as usual this week.

"We work together, live together and fight fires together. Something like this is devastating," county Fire Department Chief P. Michael Freeman said of the two firefighters who were killed and two who were seriously burned from Crew Camp Two.

"It brings firefighters face to face with their own mortality," he said during an interview at the Sherman Oaks Hospital Burn Center, where the injured men remained Wednesday, one in serious condition and the other in critical condition.

What went wrong after the eight-man team from Crew Camp Two was dropped off by a helicopter on a hillside above the fire is still under investigation. Little has been added this week to the scant details already released, but Freeman said a preliminary report on the investigation may be completed within a week.

Killed were Arthur Ruezga, 33, of Valinda, who had 13 years' experience as a wildland firefighter, and Christopher Herman, 25, of Downey, who had more than a year of experience. Christopher Barth, 25, of Seal Beach and Hector Gabriel Larios, 19, of Chino Hills were severely injured.

Officials with the county Fire Department and with the U.S. Forest Service said they had adequate resources to fight the Altadena blaze. But more water-carrying helicopters might have averted tragedy, one Forest Service official said.

Firefighting helicopters and other equipment were being used to battle a 100-acre blaze in Claremont--which officials believe was started by illegal fireworks and threatened more than 50 homes--and another brush fire on Santa Catalina Island.

"There was a little competition for aircraft and we probably wouldn't have had this problem if they had all been on the Altadena fire," said Rich Hawkins, fire manager of the Forest Service's Arroyo Seco District, based in La Canada Flintridge.

Hawkins said more water-carrying helicopters might have doused the fire before it shot up a steep hillside covered by highly volatile grass and sage and trapped the eight-man crew. At one point, Hawkins said, the fire had been knocked down to 12 acres.

"It was starting to look pretty good," Hawkins said. "The fire backed down a hillside into a draw and then started up the other side. That's when the problems started. The fire had burned 20 acres in the previous hour, and when it started up the side of the hill, it burned 30 acres in less than two minutes."

"Of course it caught the men on top (of the hill) by surprise," he added.

Crew Camp Two Batallion Chief Lyle Burkhart said he oversees more than 30 wildland firefighters, who are all highly qualified to fight brush fires. Each, he said, has undergone at least 80 hours of wildland fire suppression training and some have graduated from a fire academy.

The two firefighters killed and the two who were critically injured were like all the others at Crew Camp Two--unsworn firefighters working on a temporary, annual basis.

Their formal title is "fire suppression aides" and they are trained specifically to fight wildland fires. Their positions, which pay about $75 a day, are considered by many to be steppingstones to more coveted sworn firefighting jobs in city or county fire departments.

Most of the eight firefighters involved in last week's tragedy had worked together fighting wildland fires over the past year. Most were hired last summer.

Burkhart added that the foreman in charge of the crew has several years of camp crew supervision experience, though he is now an engine company foreman who was filling in last Friday at Crew Camp Two on an overtime shift. The foreman who would have normally been directing the placement of Crew Camp Two was on vacation.

"The supervisor on last Friday was highly qualified," Burkhart said.

All of which adds to the shock and mystery surrounding last Friday's calamity, the first brush fire in 25 years to kill a county firefighter.

The Altadena blaze, which investigators think was sparked by a parked car that caught fire along Glenallen Lane, would probably have been categorized as typical, had the eight-man crew not been overrun by flames, Burkhart said.

"There was some steep topography to contend with, but this wasn't a large fire and I wouldn't call it abnormal were it not for the injuries and fatalities," he said.

Fire officials said the last deaths involving a brush fire occurred Aug. 23, 1968, in a canyon north of Glendora. A foreman and eight camp crew firefighters were killed.

County fire officials said psychologists called in this week to counsel members of Crew Camp Two advised supervisors not to allow press interviews with any firefighters this week.

"We need to get these men back to work," Burkhart said. "We're ready to go back to work."

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