You couldn't douse the dreams of these job seekers with a four-inch hose.
From all over, they trooped in Thursday by the hundreds--in shorts and flip-flops, office duds and pumps, by truck, bike and even ambulance--for the rare chance to apply for one of Southern California's most coveted municipal jobs: Los Angeles County firefighter.
It marked the first time since 1990 that the department has accepted applications for recruits, and the offer lured hordes of hopefuls--from fresh-faced teenagers and bored desk jockeys to grizzled veterans from smaller departments looking for better pay and more varied action.
As many as 25,000 candidates are expected to drop off applications at six designated sites by the end of Saturday. That number will eventually be winnowed to 2,000 to 5,000 through a battery of written and physical tests, interviews and background checks. The smaller group will make up the pool of candidates the department picks from in filling its approximately 100 vacancies a year.
The last of the recruits from seven years ago graduated from the county Fire Academy last week. The department currently has about 100 openings.
Capt. Steve Valenzuela, a department spokesman, described the first-day turnout, an estimated 6,000 applicants, as "excellent." At the busiest site, a fire-training facility in Pomona, more than 600 people had dropped off applications by mid-morning and a steady stream poured through the rest of the day. Applications are available at all county fire stations.
Valenzuela said officials hope to receive plenty of applications from women and Asian Americans, the two groups that now are the least represented in the department. Of the county's nearly 2,400 firefighters, only 13 are women and 54 are of Asian descent, he said.
The push to recruit more women suits Kim Yankie just fine. The 19-year-old Mission Viejo woman said she has longed to be a firefighter since childhood. Yankie, a student and supermarket worker who has belonged to a Fire Explorers group for three years, said her bedroom is still cluttered with toy fire engines.
"It's the only thing I've ever thought about doing since I was little," Yankie said. "I wouldn't know what else to do with myself."
Mary Rivera and Veronica Gomez, secretaries in the County Fire Department's community affairs office, hope to swap their desk jobs for something more exciting. The pair have jogged and lifted weights together for a year to prepare for the agility test, which features tasks like hefting ladders and hoses and carrying air tanks.
The physical rigors were of little worry to Jayne Rizzo, an emergency medical technician from Rancho Cucamonga. She drove her ambulance to the Pomona site to drop off her application between calls.
"I'm a very strong person," said Rizzo, a 37-year-old mother of three. "I lift 400-pound patients."
The Los Angeles County department is considered a plum destination because of its pay--the entry-level salary tops $36,000 a year--and the variety of jobs available.
"It's a larger department. It has more stability. More job opportunity. More money," said David Bowman, 31, an Inglewood city firefighter for six years.
But the hopefuls included a fair number of people whose nearest brush with a blazing house may have been a televised episode of "Emergency!"
Shelley Heffington, a 24-year-old homemaker from San Bernardino, applied for a slot along with her husband, who just finished a stint in the Marine Corps. She described her previous jobs as "basic office stuff" and conceded that her petite frame could use some strengthening.
"I'll have to pump up a little bit," Heffington said.
Chatsworth bartender T.J. Gavlin said she cannot be deterred from her dream of becoming a firefighter.
"I want to save lives," the 35-year-old Gavlin said at a recruitment site in Pacoima.
"My dad is a retired police officer and he loves that I am doing this," she said. "He wanted me to be a police officer, too. But I think it would be more satisfying to save someone's life than to catch a robber."