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`We pull together, side by side'

Idyllwild rallies to help the families of the firefighters who died.

October 28, 2006|Louis sahagun | Times Staff Writer

A day after an explosion of heat and flames killed four local firefighters and critically injured another, relatives and neighbors in the mountain town of Idyllwild responded to their loss with strong emotions, flags at half-staff and a growing army of volunteers turning out to help the affected families.

"With 120 nonprofits in a town of 3,400 people, we're all but run by volunteers," said Becky Clark, publisher and editor of the Idyllwild Town Crier, a weekly newspaper. "So when we face tragedy, we pull together, side by side."

Even as the fire continued to burn out of control Friday near Cabazon, about 26 miles to the north, Idyllwild's residents plunged into organizing myriad benefits and honors programs. Many of those efforts underlined the community's special affection for U.S. Forest Service Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser, 43, who left behind his wife, Maria, and their five children.

On Friday, a group of federal fire authorities washed clothes and prepared meals for the family, whose modest wood-frame home was decorated with pumpkins.

Separately, Idyllwild Town Hall members made plans to honor Loutzenhiser with a plaque and a newly planted tree. La Casita Mexican restaurant was sending out invitations for a benefit Thursday. Musicians were tuning up for a benefit concert at the local movie theater sometime next week.

And then there's Tuesday's annual Idyllwild Halloween Carnival, held in the center of town: Organizers have decided to donate the funds raised at the event to the firefighters' families.

"The carnival needs that money for next year's carnival," Clark said. "But its organizers are saying, 'Heck with all that. Let's give it to the families.' "

Steve Friemoth, co-owner of an auto garage where Loutzenhiser's teenage daughter works, underscored the fact that in a small town, "when something bad happens, it hurts everybody."

"So here's what we're hoping to do," he said. "Mark was building an addition on his home. We'd like to organize a group to finish it for Maria and the kids."

Down the road, teachers at Idyllwild School confirmed the bad news to students in a statement they read at the start of class Friday.

"We are very sad to tell you that one of our parents, a fire captain with the United States Forest Service, Mark Loutzenhiser, was badly injured in the fire yesterday," it began. "Unfortunately, his injuries were so bad that he died. While this is very tragic, the Idyllwild School community should salute his heroic efforts to save all of us."

With that goal in mind, Principal Emily Shaw and her staff postponed the school's annual Blast from the Past talent show, which had been scheduled for Friday night in the gymnasium and was to have featured a dance performance by Loutzenhiser's third-grade twin boys.

In an office festooned with Superwoman posters and figurines, Shaw said the talent show was rescheduled for next Friday, with all funds raised going to the "families of our lost firefighters."

"Our staff has been particularly hard hit; Mark's family has three kids currently attending this school," Shaw said. "All of the youths involved in Idyllwild sports programs worked with Mark, who coached them."

Three miles away, Claudia Posey, 27, was replaying memories of the Sunday in August when her baby was delivered by the side of the road by firefighters Loutzenhiser, Jess McLean and Jason McKay, all members of the crew of Engine 57 who died Thursday.

Claudia and her husband, Jody, were driving down the mountain when she felt the baby coming. With no time to drive to the nearest fire station or to a pullout along winding and dangerous California 243, they parked by a guardrail.

They were spotted by the engine crew, which responded quickly. Loutzenhiser directed traffic while McLean and McKay tended to the mother. McKay, it turned out, was the catcher.

"I can't believe that two months ago, these men brought a life into this world, and now they're gone," Posey said. "They are the biggest heroes I know. I'm hoping to introduce my baby to the families of those men. Without them, I wouldn't have Brodyn, my beautiful boy."

It wasn't the first time this unincorporated Riverside County community known for its art and music foundations and schools has been shaken by fire. The town was evacuated for three days during the devastating Big Canyon fire of 1996. Residents returned to their homes on the July 4 weekend and held a parade led by local firefighters.

On Friday, the mood was solemn yet determined.

At the Town Crier, staffers were sorting through nearly 100 e-mails sent by people as far away as Alaska and Kenya wanting to offer their condolences or expressing bitterness about the arson that authorities say started the fire.

"Many of those e-mails came from people with some sort of connection with Idyllwild -- they once lived here or they have a second home here or have relatives here," said J.P. Crumrine, the paper's assistant editor.

"They know it's a small community, and the loss of four men is treated much differently in Idyllwild than it would be anywhere else," he said. "They feel our loss as if it were their own."

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