YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Volunteer Firefighters Focus on Task as Their Own Homes Burn

While saving neighbors' houses in fierce Cedar fire in San Diego County, about a third of Julian district's crew lose their residences.

October 30, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer and Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writers

CUYAMACA, Calif. — The mood inside the small firehouse here bespoke stoicism and a matter-of-fact sense of duty. There was much to do in the aftermath of a one-sided battle.

The eight volunteer firefighters had already been defeated by the overwhelming force of eastern San Diego County's Cedar fire. Rearing to 300 and 400 feet in the air, its flames had rolled through their position Tuesday like a well-commanded army.

About 300 homes within a few miles had fallen to the flames. But the men, by dint of frantic last-minute brush clearing and forays into the just-burned landscape to hose standing structures, had managed to save two dozen of their neighbors' houses.

While they worked, however, all eight of their own homes were burning to the ground.

At the same time, a few miles northwest, near Julian, at least six other firefighters lost their homes to wildfire while battling flames elsewhere. In all, at least 14 of the 40 volunteers of the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District lost their homes.

"It's hard to define heroism, but that's certainly the case here," said Hugh Marx, supervising ranger for the Lake Cuyamaca Recreation and Park District, who visited the Cuyamaca firehouse Wednesday. "They put their neighbors' good above their own good."

As the sun rose Tuesday, the volunteers could see smoke and an eerie orange glow advancing from the southeast.

By midafternoon, the fire was unleashing its full fury on the town. The firemen retreated to the station.

They burned brush between the building and nearby Cuyamaca Reservoir, hoping the scorched land and the asphalt parking lot would keep the invading wildfire away. The men stood on the ground they had burned and waited.

"We knew if it got really bad, we could go jump in the lake," said Chris Wilburn, a three-year veteran.

After the fire passed, the men went into town to douse any signs of fire on or near the relatively few houses that were still standing. A combat mentality prevailed; the men placed loyalty to comrades and dedication to the mission above personal considerations.

"You can't leave the people you're working with," said Bob Garner, a 24-year veteran of the volunteer group. "You can't let them down. They're thinking the same thing you are."

It wasn't until Wednesday that the eight took stock of their own losses.

Garner, a 49-year-old welder, took a fatalistic view of the loss of his small stucco house in nearby Harrison Park, which like most neighborhoods in the Cuyamaca Mountains is thick with tall oak and pine trees.

"With this rich fuel, there's nothing you can do," he said. "The fire was so intense it would pick up trees and drop them miles away in front of the fire. The only thing that could have saved it is if the wind changed directions."

George Hatton, a 53-year-old veteran of 12 years in the department, gave "not a thought in the world to my own property" while he battled to save others' homes. "We have a job to do. It's more than that. It's doing the right thing."

Hatton finally saw his own Harrison Park house Wednesday. "The house and everything is completely leveled," he said. "Zero. It's just ashes."

By Wednesday night, the firehouse the men had saved was the only place left for them to bed down.

As darkness fell in nearby Julian, a tense vigil endured in the quaint former mining town locally famous for its bed-and-breakfast inns. Residents having long since been evacuated, Main Street was lined with firetrucks. Firefighters from such places as Montebello, Sacramento and Compton waited for the great fire, which threatened to catch Julian in giant pincers from the southeast and northwest.

Bill Everett, a volunteer in the department's Julian division, learned that his home in Kentwood in the Pines, to the southeast, was gone. It had been a spacious modern cabin in the highest part of that community. When the weather was clear, it had a view that extended 160 miles.

Everett, a large, burly man wearing a red bandanna around his head, had been working on the fire since the first alarm at 6 p.m. Sunday. He had logged 60 straight hours -- none in the vicinity of his own house.

"They intentionally keep firefighters away from our own homes," he said, "because we would freak out."

Julian firefighter Nick Rogers, 27, lost his home in Kentwood in the Pines while he was fighting flames in Pine Hills to the southwest. What troubles him most is that he might have lost the combat medals his grandfather earned as a British paratrooper during World War II.

"I'm going to go back and dig for them," he said. "I haven't had a chance yet. I've been too busy. I don't think it's hit me yet. I think it will feel more close to home when I go back and start digging through the rubble."

Full focus on the task at hand, said Hatton, is part of their ethic.

"It's in our blood. You either got it or you don't," he said. "I'm a fireman. That's the way it is with volunteer departments all over the world."


Times staff writer James Ricci contributed to this report.

Los Angeles Times Articles