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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRESTORMS

Firefighters Humbled by Enormity of the Task

'It's like putting your head in an oven,' says one crewman. Adrenaline and the hope of sparing homes keep them going.

October 27, 2003|Erika Hayasaki and Stuart Pfeiffer | Times Staff Writers

For more than 5,000 firefighters, Sunday was a day of humbling moments and surging adrenaline as fierce winds whipped flames into infernos that took at least 11 lives and devoured more than 500 homes in six counties.

Most firefighters preferred to focus on what they saved and not what their efforts couldn't help. Sunday's flames stymied crews; this fire wasn't playing by normal rules.

Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Ken Ortiz fought the Grand Prix blaze as it tore into an affluent, hilly community on Mountain Avenue in Claremont early Sunday. But by the end of his nine hours, the scorecard was disappointing: 12 houses lost and five saved.

Later, covered with soot and ash, Ortiz couldn't shake the vision of two pets, a rabbit and cat, running across the yard of a well-manicured home, their fur burning.

Over and over, like a mantra, experienced firefighters summed up the blaze with the same words. "This was the most intense firestorm I've ever seen," said Sid Hultquist, battalion chief for the San Bernardino County Fire Department, a 22-year veteran.

Battling the blaze, some wore two pairs of fire-resistant pants and two long-sleeved shirts, even as temperatures soared well over 100 degrees.

"It's like putting your head in an oven," said Bryan Garabedian, 21, a firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service, based in Sequoia National Forest. "They put us right there next to the fire. It feels like it burns your skin."

Many crews struggled to see through the billowing smoke and clouds of ash. They could scarcely hear one another over gusting winds and the crashing of flames into homes and trees.

"People can't believe how loud a fire is," said San Bernardino Fire Capt. Rick McClintock, his eyes bloodshot and face streaked with soot. "You're yelling at each other. You can't see. You can't breathe."

Sonny Santero, 42, a firefighter for 20 years in Lancaster, had been working on the blazes for three days straight, most recently in Claremont and La Verne.

He and other crew members cut holes in the roofs of houses and garages. Thick black smoke greeted them.

"You couldn't see in front of you," said Santero, who had battled blazes in the 1992 Los Angeles riots and the Malibu fire of 1993. Sunday's fire seemed different.

"It was pretty eerie, black, with big orange swirls everywhere. It looked like we were driving into the abyss."

For Santero, this wasn't just a job. He has three children of his own. He tried to call his family when he could, particularly to reassure his 12-year-old daughter, who was watching the fire on TV, that he was safe. Each home he entered was a new battleground.

"We have houses. We have families. We know the pictures and albums in there are important," Santero said. "It makes you feel good that there are a lot of personal belongings that we saved."

The wind, as always, has made the job worse.

"The winds were swirling," said Nick Tosches, 49, a 25-year veteran firefighter with Los Angeles County. "The wind just pushes the embers. It fans the fire like a blowtorch."

Many firefighters, having slept little, operated on autopilot. Pete Janowski, a firefighter for four years with the La Verne Fire Department, napped for two hours Friday night and didn't sleep Saturday. The fire stoked his adrenaline. His own Rancho Cucamonga home was nearby.

"Property can be rebuilt -- that's easy to say, unless it's your home," Janowski said.

In homes that had been evacuated, Janowski and others cleared out flammable materials, moving patio furniture, woodpiles, barbecues and propane tanks. When the fire had been contained Sunday in La Verne, Janowski was right by his neighbor's yard in Rancho Cucamonga. He called his wife and told her the good news. It was a small victory in a big battle.

It was a campaign against the unexpected. Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Geno Ketelsleger pointed to a house that burned to the ground next to a charred hillside. Ice plant had covered the slope.

"The ice plant burned as if it was tinder, and that's what we recommend people plant," Ketelsleger said.

Capt. Ortiz, who lives in Corona, tried to stay practical in the face of such odds, quickly assessing neighborhoods, calculating which homes were beyond hope and trying to save those where he believed his crews stood a chance.

"If a house is gone, you have to write it off -- you bounce to where you can do the most good," he said.

In one home, Ortiz and his crew realized that flames had ignited the attic. They pulled down ceiling tiles, hoping to extinguish the blaze. But the fire shot out, forcing the crew to its knees.

"We dumped as much water as we could and we got out as fast as we could," he said. "Your adrenaline is pumping."

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Times staff writer Nora Zamichow contributed to this report.

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