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1,000 Firefighters Attend Funerals of 2 Colleagues

August 27, 1993|ANDREW LePAGE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Nearly 1,000 firefighters from across Southern California paid tribute Thursday to two of their own killed a week ago in an Altadena blaze that overran an eight-member crew in steep terrain.

The funerals for Arthur Ruezga, 33, of Valinda and Christopher Drake Herman, 25, of Downey marked the first time in 25 years that county wild-land firefighters have been killed in a brush fire.

"The county (Fire Department) has fought over 20,000 wild-land fires since one of our own has fallen," said Chief P. Michael Freeman, who spoke Thursday morning at a Pico Rivera church during funeral services for Ruezga.

So-called fire suppression aides such as Ruezga and Herman are trained to fight wilderness fires and are paid about $75 a day. They are temporary employees working on an annual basis, usually in hopes of landing a better-paying position as a sworn firefighter. They use chain saws, picks, shovels and other hand tools to cut break lines around fires to keep them from spreading.

Ruezga, a 13-year veteran, did not fit the usual mold. Instead of seeking a sworn job at an urban department, he had chosen to stay with the wilderness crews.

"We're never ready and we never accept (the death of a firefighter)," Freeman said. "Firefighters are a family, and Art was our brother. He is a hero in the truest sense."

Herman graduated from the Fire Academy at Rio Hondo College in Whittier this summer and was on a list of candidates for a sworn position with the county department.

"Since he was a small boy his dream was to be a firefighter," said Herman's aunt, Irma Avile, during Herman's funeral at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, where Ruezga also was buried.

She said Herman's parents are anxiously awaiting a report from the team of County Fire Department and U.S. Forest Service officials who are investigating what went wrong during the Altadena blaze.

At one point, the fire had dwindled to about 12 acres but suddenly shot out of a gully and up a hillside where the firefighters were trying to cut the break line. In addition to the two who died, two firefighters were severely burned and are being treated at the Sherman Oaks Community Hospital Burn Center.

About 50 wild-land firefighters attended services for Ruezga and Herman.

"I believe we have all incorporated into our firefighting a part of Art's style," fellow crew member Tim Kuch said of Ruezga. "And that's how he will live with us, for a long time."

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