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Firefighters Enjoy Newfound Popularity

Heroes: As crews work to protect homes, residents are showing their appreciation.

October 03, 2002|NORMA ZAMICHOW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Firefighters battling the Angeles National Forest wildfire never had it so good.

Residents set up cots and chairs, baked and cooked for them. Starbucks dropped off pastries. In-N-Out Burger dispatched catering trucks to fire lines.

"It's the red carpet," said Capt. Tim Davis, a Forest Service firefighter for 15 years, based in Santa Barbara.

Davis and other firefighters were treated like heroes in the past week, plied with steaks and lemonade. It wasn't just the food and invitations to homes, they say. It was the whistles, cheers, pats on the back, and many thumbs-up.

Firefighters attribute their boost of popularity to one event: the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, in which 343 New York City firefighters died while attempting to rescue those trapped in the World Trade Center.

"If anything good can be said about 9/11, it's that it changed the perception of what emergency people do," said Capt. Dana Simpson, who's been with the Kern County Fire Department for 30 years. "I always considered firefighting a noble profession. Now the public is starting to see it as a noble profession. I don't say we were taken for granted before, but the perception of us has changed."

Praise was always expected from residents whose homes were saved, Simpson said, but now, "there's a groundswell of interest."

That interest, he and others say, isn't limited to the times when a fire erupts. Requests for tours of fire stations have more than doubled. Donations to firefighters' associations are up. And a firefighter at a market, bar or restaurant will periodically be told, "It's on the house."

"We used to get waves once in a while, and now people wave all the time," said Capt. Mike Lindbery, who has been a firefighter for 14 years with Ventura County. "There's a new awakening over what we do."

The events of Sept. 11 prompted many Americans to reevaluate their perceptions of firefighters and police officers. But outside of New York City, most individuals lacked the chance to show their new appreciation, experts say.

For Angelenos, the fire in the Angeles National Forest--which burned 38,094 acres over 10 days before it was contained Tuesday--provided that chance.

"We now recognize that firefighters do a number of risky daily activities--Sept. 11 taught us that," said Samuel Sears, an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Florida. "People in California didn't have as many opportunities to express the emotional impact of Sept. 11. They are taking the opportunity to reach out now with firefighters. It's not surprising."

When the fire tore across the hills behind Rick Durfield's two-story home in La Verne, firefighters were poised and waiting. Durfield, his wife and his son Tim took tuna sandwiches, soda and water to the crews. In the morning, they fed them breakfast. They left their house open, offering their bathroom, and bringing chairs for firefighters to perch on their lawn.

"We really appreciate your putting your lives on the line on a daily basis," Durfield, 60, recalled telling the crews.

"We gave them carte blanche. Whatever they needed, we were willing to do," said Durfield, director of assessment for the accelerated degree program at Azusa Pacific University.

"9/11 ratcheted up my appreciation," he said. "I love what firefighters stand for. When you know you could lose your life and you try to go the extra mile and put your life in extreme jeopardy--that's heroism."

Down the street from Durfield, Raul Ries, a pastor, drove to a nearby Vons supermarket, intending to buy bottled water to distribute to fire crews. He asked the manager whether the store would be willing to chip in. Yes, he was told. The manager gave 50 cases of bottled water and six boxes of fruit that Ries distributed from a pickup in his La Verne neighborhood.

"Firefighters are amazing people," he said.

Alicia Guerrero, 35, watched in horror as the flames galloped over the ridge behind her home, a house that she and her husband had just sold and was in escrow.

Firefighters told her, "We're not going to let you lose your home." Guerrero had no choice; she believed them. It was her daughter Katie's third birthday, but instead of celebrating, she and her husband ferried the children to their grandmother's home.

When it became clear that their home in La Verne was safe, Guerrero's children returned. Katie blew out the candles on her cake. And Guerrero's 11-year-old son, Joshua, and 7-year-old daughter, Brianna, made lemonade for the nearby fire crews and police officers.

"We see them as bigger heroes," Guerrero said. "We looked at them as all doing a job to protect our home."

For many firefighters, this kind of sentiment was overwhelming. When Simpson described the various offers that poured into the firefighters' command post, his eyes teared up: thousands of bottles of water from Wal-Mart, 50 cell phones from Verizon, mom-and-pop restaurants offering meals.

There were so many offers, in fact, that fire officials began suggesting that donors contact the Red Cross.

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