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WILD WEST CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS

Hunters schooled in real fire power

August 31, 2004|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS

Outside, ON THE Angeles National Forest shooting range, the air trembled with gunfire. Inside the single-wide trailer, we sat elbow to elbow, a few dozen men and boys, a handful of women and girls, cooled by a single fan.

This was Hunter Ed, and it was going to be a long, warm eight hours. To hunt on public land in California you need a license. And to get a license as a first-timer, you need a class and a test under your belt. About 25,000 Californians take this test every year, and with dove season opening Wednesday, the fields and woods will soon teem with the Class of 2004.

For us there was no shooting. Instead, at day's end we would be given the chance to attack 100 multiple-choice hunting-related questions, armed with only our No. 2 pencils.

"Last month we had an 8-year-old girl get a 97. Noooooo pressure," said Jim Overman, taking command up front.

Ha ha ha ha, we said, without mirth.

Overman and Joe Kubasak, our volunteer instructors, stood beside a rack full of rifles and shotguns, rattling off good information and bad jokes. Hope and Crosby, meet Smith & Wesson.

I sat up front. Sure, I'd done only half of the mandatory two-hour homework assignment, but this was the seat closest to the fan, and the best defense is a good offense, right?

On we plunged into the parts of a pump-action shotgun (don't forget that ventilated rib), the effect of a full choke in your shotgun barrel (the pellets fly in tight clusters), the best place to start the incision when dressing game.

Yes, said Overman and Kubasak, we would need to know plenty about hardware. But we should think bigger thoughts, about concepts such as "fair chase."

Now it was nearly noon. We sent a black-hatted guy out to the cafe coach with orders for hot dogs and burgers.

But moments later, he was back. And with four and a half words, he dug me out of my homework hole.

"The hill's on fire," he said.

Yup, hill on fire. About 100 yards from the trailer, maybe closer. Winds rising and falling, brushy terrain rolling eastward like a big, rumpled brown bedspread.

It was a set of brush fires like this, spread across hundreds of thousands of dry Southern California acres last October, that killed two dozen people, destroyed more than 2,000 houses and turned much of last year's hunting season into an exercise in ash-sifting. But did we panic?

No. With impeccable order and calm, we rose and filed out of the trailer.

I don't know where the handful of females went. But the men and their boys staked out the blacktop, waiting like Dalmatians at the firehouse door for the emergency services parade.

"There'll be helicopters here any minute," Kubasak said.

Sure enough, one appeared. It circled the growing plume of smoke.

"He's measuring the wind and direction. Then he'll call in the drop," Kubasak said.

The helicopter buzzed around, drew close, but dropped nothing.

"He's not that worried about it if he's not dropping," said a man in a green cap.

"The other side of the hill is where it started," said the man in the black baseball cap, who turned out to be David Wratchford, 26, of La Tuna Canyon. "I was coming up to order lunch."

Now we had National Forest firefighters responding, L.A. County Fire responding, L.A. City Fire responding. In the sky, the helicopter let loose its first load.

"You see that dump?" Kubasak asked. "That was neat."

"All right!" said a guy in a gray NRA cap, Lester Salay, 48, from Northridge. "If you think that's crazy, you should see those [manly fellows] who parachute!"

Next came a column of firefighters:

11 guys with yellow suits, shovels, chain saws, axes, hoes and really cool firefighter day packs. They marched into the brush. The flames feinted and hopped.

"The smoke was just coming over the hill, so I ran down to the classroom," Black Cap repeated to somebody.

Then another set of engines came howling up the road, more than half a dozen now, and four copters overhead.

"They got some neat stuff," Overman marveled.

The fire was overmatched. The firefighters marched back across the parking lot. Smiling.

"Good fire, guys," one of them said. "Good fire."

The next day, Hunter Ed reconvened and 25 of 26 students passed the test. I was AWOL. I'd done some thinking about cylinder bores, ventilated ribs and such. And I reached a conclusion that the guys in the lot might understand:

I don't want to be a hunter. I wanna be a firefighter. Superior hardware. No incisions. There's no test, is there?

To e-mail Christopher Reynolds, go to latimes.com/chrisreynolds.

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