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3 Help Deputy Arrest Fire at Todd Road Jail

October 29, 2003|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

In 20 years on the force, Ventura County Sheriff's Deputy Mark Hanks has faced down a lot of bad guys.

But this week, the aggressor was a 60-foot-high wall of flame and his only defense a 10-foot-long garden hose.

Hanks and three other men took on the job of defending Todd Road Jail near Santa Paula on Sunday, when it became clear that firefighters were too busy battling flames on other fronts to respond.

"I never thought I would be out there putting out a fire," said Hanks, who works at the jail. "But there just wasn't anybody else available, and somebody had to do something."

Their 90-minute stand, which stopped the blaze before it reached the $58-million jail, was just the start of a day filled with dramatics. With flames threatening to engulf the facility, sheriff's deputies evacuated 825 prisoners and spent a tense night guarding them in a tunnel at the Main Jail in Ventura.

Details of the hasty inmate transfer emerged Tuesday in a briefing by Sheriff Bob Brooks for the county Board of Supervisors. Brooks held up a photograph showing the inmates sitting against the walls of the tunnel, guarded by one deputy.

There were no major outbreaks of violence, and the prisoners were returned to Todd Road Jail on Monday after the danger had passed, the sheriff told the county board.

"Thankfully, they didn't want to be left in the middle of the fire either, so they were pretty cooperative," Brooks said.

When Hanks arrived for his shift at noon Sunday, fire had been steadily advancing on the jail for hours. When it began licking at a stand of eucalyptus trees close to the facility, Hanks turned on irrigation for a 50-acre lemon orchard that surrounds the jail.

It soon became clear that a stronger defense was necessary, he said. Hanks and sheriff's service technician James Wooten took turns spraying the flames with a 4-inch-wide irrigation hose. When the water ran low, they refilled the 1,000-gallon tank, mounted on a trailer, at a fire hydrant on the jail property, Hanks said.

They then came across David Stein, who was trying to save his own property, a construction yard about 300 yards away.

Stein and his brother had their own hose and water tank and helped fight off the flames near the jail.

"It was hot. It was very thick smoke, a lot of soot and ash in the air," Hanks said. "It was hard to breathe."

After an hour and a half, the biggest flames had passed. Fire destroyed 281 lemon trees, 205 eucalyptus trees and much of the jail's irrigation system. But the jail was still standing.

Undersheriff Craig Husband said the prisoner evacuation was a first for Ventura County.

Deputies had trained for the possibility, but everyone thought an earthquake would be the reason, Husband said.

Sheriff's officials kept details of the transfer quiet for security reasons, Husband said. It took about eight hours to move the prisoners in two buses and four vans, he said.

Inmates were held overnight in a tunnel that connects the Main Jail to holding cells in nearby courtrooms.

Jail officials kept troublesome prisoners segregated the best they could, making use of unlikely spaces, said Ken Kipp, a chief deputy in charge of the jail.

"We put them in every water closet available," he said.

Husband praised the work of the deputies, calling the transfer a "monumental task."

As for Hanks, he isn't quite ready to trade badges.

"I'll pass. I don't envy their job at all," he said of firefighters. "I was glad to help out, but I would not want to do it on a full-time basis. That fire's too hot."

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