The season started in January, months ahead of schedule, with fires that burned as angry as a summer inferno. By mid-November, 7,622 fires had charred 491,333 acres statewide, well above the average over the last five years, which have been among the worst spans in state history, according to the CDF and the U.S. Forest Service. (Nationwide, 7.1 million acres went up in flames, the worst tally in a half-century, according to the National Inter-Agency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.)
If there's a time and a place to be a wildland firefighter, it's now, in Southern California, where what does not burn in summer can be whipped to flames by the Santa Ana winds of fall.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday December 21, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 9 inches; 342 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrightwood -- In "A Season in Purgatory," an article in the Dec. 15 magazine, the mountain town of Wrightwood was mistakenly identified as Wrightsville.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 12, 2003 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 4 Lat Magazine Desk 0 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
In "A Season in Purgatory" (Dec. 15), the mountain town of Wrightwood was mistakenly identified as Wrightsville.
On Aug. 27, the place for the warriors to be is Julian, in San Diego County. Several suspicious fires break out in the early morning, and Chittenden gathers a strike team of five engines--20 firefighters--from San Bernardino County. Julian is familiar territory. Two weeks prior, Chittenden had returned from a weeklong fire near the small town that consumed 61,000 acres, destroyed 37 homes and left him slack-jawed at tornadoes of flame dancing across 50-acre swaths of knotty manzanita.
''I've been in this business for 25 years and I'm seeing things literally that I've never seen before,'' Chittenden tells his team as they gather shortly before dawn in the parking lot of the CDF headquarters in San Bernardino. There are ''four or five'' fires, all suspected arson, he warns. ''None of them are really screaming, but assuming this guy or gal continues [setting them] there'll be more action,'' he says. ''Let's not kill ourselves getting down there. We know the route.'' With that, the strike team heads south. All told, CDF will send 25 engines at a cost of $55,000 a day.
Todd Williams takes a seat beside the engineer and Rusty McCulley rides behind him. They don't know much about each other. Williams grew up in Orange County, in a milieu of surfing, suburbia and punk rock. McCulley was either on welfare or homeless most of his childhood, following the threadbare dreams of his grandmother. He grew up mostly in Upper Lake, a tiny town in Lake County.
''We were always on welfare,'' he explains. ''We were always moving. Actually, the whole story was there was going to be this family-uniting thing. My real mom was going to come out from Texas, and we were all going to move to Oregon and be this big happy family.'' They packed an old Impala with all their possessions and headed to Oregon. When they realized their dreams didn't match their funds, they turned back to California. The money finally ran out around Redding. ''We picked up cans and whatever to get money for gas and food,'' McCulley says. ''We'd live in rest-stops, off the side of the highway. This one time we ran completely out of money and we were trapped, on the Sacramento River. We just lived there for a while.''
A hulking man whose biker looks belie a gentle manner, McCulley jokes that he can win any hard-luck contest. He spent time in a foster home. Even when they did settle down, he left home after a spat over dating a Hupa Indian girl. McCulley spent most of high school living on friends' couches or spare beds. At the same time, he started hanging out in a firehouse in Upper Lake. The firefighters let him do gofer work; then they started taking him to fires.
''I thought that was just the most exciting, best thing in the world,'' he says. ''I got a little pager and a little tiny badge, a little uniform, and I loved it.''
As soon as he graduated from high school, McCulley joined the U.S. Forest Service as a firefighter and eventually switched to the CDF. ''It's like a family I never really had. Brothers I never really had. People that really care about you.''
As they drive south toward the Cleveland National Forest, Williams takes the temperature and humidity with a field kit. It's 90 degrees with 17% humidity, and they're barely out of the morning rush hour. A mile past Santa Ysabel on State Highway 79, they pass the Inaja picnic area, where there is a memorial to 11 dead wildland firefighters. Every rule that will govern their behavior in the wild, the ones Williams drums into seasonals heads, was born in this killing field.
During a wildfire on Nov. 25, 1956, a sudden shift of wind flicked a finger of flame up-canyon toward an inmate crew, trapping them mid-slope above the San Diego River. With nowhere to run, three U.S. Forest Service rangers, a prison guard and seven inmates died in the ensuing blowup. What emerged from the Inaja incident are the 10 Standard Orders for firefighters, which all wild- land firefighters commit to memory: ''Keep informed of fire weather conditions and forecast . . . know what your fire is doing at all times . . . have escape routes and make them known.''