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The State | SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRES

Fallen Firefighter 'a Real Hero' to His Family, Colleagues

Steven Rucker was one of 11 from a Marin County unit who fought on the lines near Julian.

October 30, 2003|Lee Romney, Seema Mehta and Eric Malnic | Times Staff Writers

NOVATO, Calif. — Steven L. Rucker, the husband and father from Marin County who died while trying to save burning homes in San Diego County, "helped a lot of people and touched a lot of lives," his sister said Wednesday.

"He was a real hero," Starla Lincoln said. "We are very proud of him."

Rucker, 38, was one of 11 firefighters from the Novato Fire Protection District in Marin County who drove more than 400 miles overnight Monday to join the battle against the Cedar fire near Julian.

Deployed Wednesday along Orchard Lane, a back road in the forested hill country about five miles northeast of Julian, Rucker and the three other men of Novato's Engine 6162 were on foot, trying to protect a group of small homes, when flames suddenly overwhelmed them.

The four could not make it back to their fire engine, so they dashed for refuge in one of the homes they had saved, said Fred H. Batchelor, an assistant chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Two of the men -- engine driver Shawn Kreps and firefighter/paramedic Barrett Smith -- made it inside, suffering minor injuries.

So did the team leader, Novato Fire Capt. Doug McDonald.

But when McDonald realized Rucker was not with them, he went back out and searched in vain, returning to the house with burns that left him in critical condition, Batchelor said.

Rucker's body was found on the porch of the house, a few feet from the doorway.

Batchelor said Rucker probably suffocated from superheated air that seared his lungs.

A few hours later the Department of Forestry incident commander announced Rucker's death to the media, calling the announcement "the most difficult experience of my life."

Gov. Gray Davis offered his condolences.

"Our hearts go out to his family," Davis said.

"Be assured that his family will receive all the benefits that lawfully are due him because of his heroic service."

Rucker leaves his 35-year-old wife, Catherine, their daughter Kerstin, 8, and their 3-year-old son, Wesley.

At the firehouse where Engine 6162 was based, the flag flew at half staff Wednesday night.

Floral bouquets adorned the front of the station.

Rucker, who joined the Novato Fire Protection District as a firefighter and paramedic 11 years ago, was its only member to die since a chief suffered a fatal heart attack while responding to a fire more than 35 years ago.

Friends said Rucker was a cheerful, friendly man who was enthusiastic about his work.

"He died loving what he did," his sister said.

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