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Fighting fires and battling emotions

Crews on the front lines focus on the job at hand and grieve for their comrades who didn't escape the flames.

October 28, 2006|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

BEAUMONT, CALIF. — There are moments -- when the wind is so strong that flaming tumbleweeds soar overhead, when the fire moves through the chaparral so quickly you can hear it before you can see it -- when it feels like chaos on the front lines of a wildfire.

But firefighters have their rules: Identify escape routes, think clearly, act decisively. The rules drilled into their heads from the first day of training are supposed to work. They are supposed to keep them alive.

And so it was not only with immense sadness but a large dose of frustration that nearly 2,000 firefighters descended upon the ferocious Riverside County wildfire Friday, a day after four of their colleagues were killed and a fifth was critically injured.

Among them, the five firefighters had 37 years of experience. Authorities said Friday that the men appeared to have been briefed on weather conditions and logistics, and that while they had parked their engine in the thick of the fire, they appeared to have chosen their position with specificity and care. And yet, they were overtaken by flames so quickly that they did not have time to scramble back inside their truck.

U.S. Forest Service Division Chief Michael Wakowski, a 31-year veteran working the Riverside County fire, was asked to reconcile the fact that the firefighters appeared to do everything right, but died anyway. "I can't," he said, tears welling.

"You're supposed to stay out of harm's way if you follow all of these rules," he said. "But sometimes things go bad. Stuff just happens. That's just life out here. This is a sober reminder: Every day you could not go home."

On a lonely highway south of Beaumont, the incident shattered the unique and placid brotherhood -- and, increasingly, the sisterhood -- shared by firefighters who specialize in fighting wilderness fires and were on the front lines of this one.

It came at the end of fire season. Much of the brittle vegetation that hugs the rocky ridges here would have died off soon. Seasonal firefighters, those who sign up for months-long contracts and make up a large portion of the firefighters, were scheduled to end their tour in a matter of weeks.

"In the early days, the early history of the U.S. Forest Service, it was a husband and a wife and their kids living in a lookout in the middle of nowhere," said Charles Hixon, 31, a Forest Service assistant fire engine operator based in the Cleveland National Forest.

"It doesn't feel any different today," he said. "It's a family of gentle people, people who like the outdoors. When somebody retires, you bring your whole family to the party. There is a routine to it. And just when everybody was starting to think that fire season was over, this happens. It's a heartbreaker, man."

Hixon was among the hundreds of firefighters holding the line off Highway 79.

Starving the fire

Authorities were hoping to use the road as a firebreak. If they could keep the fire from jumping the road toward the west, the fire would soon run out of fuel and, if things went well, would die out. If they failed, the fire would move into a large, rugged expanse of dry brush, and would move in a perilous path toward heavily populated areas, including the cities of Moreno Valley, Hemet and San Jacinto.

Even as flames licked against the east side of the highway, the firefighters said they could not shake the images of the dead firefighters and their engine, which was so badly burned that portions of it melted and some of its windows burst.

Many of the firefighters said they had paused before deploying to the fire to hug their spouses a little tighter, to reassure their kids a little more than usual, to say an extra prayer.

Alex Broumand, 39, a firefighter-paramedic with the Carpinteria Fire District and an eight-year veteran, took his sons to a Cub Scout meeting in the Santa Barbara area Thursday evening. On the way home, they heard on the radio about the firefighters' deaths. When they walked in the door of their home, he got the call to head to Riverside County.

"My older son was standing right there," Broumand said. "He said, 'Are you going to go where those people got hurt?' I said, 'Yeah. That's what I do. That's my job.' "

A few hours later, Broumand was reading to his 4-year-old son, Aaron, in his bedroom. Most nights, he said, 8-year-old Ryan would have been indignant about the notion of joining his brother for such a babyish activity. This time, knowing his father was being deployed in a matter of hours, he came in and sat for the story.

"I had to talk to him a little bit afterward," Broumand said. "I told him, 'I'm going to come home safe.' My job is not to be a hero. My job is to put out fires -- and to have an entire career putting out fires."

Still, this time, he gave his wife an extra kiss on his way out the door.

"Because you never know," he said.

Many other firefighters said they found themselves doing something they hadn't done in years -- reviewing the fundamentals of their training to avoid the fate of their comrades.

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