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The heroes who face down the flames

AL MARTINEZ

October 30, 2006|AL MARTINEZ

FATE came howling down from the northeast skies last week and took the lives of four brave men in the San Jacinto Mountains.

It blew flames as high as heaven toward them on a rough forest road, so quickly, so furiously, that they had no time to react.

Duty had sent them rushing into peril, but it was an arsonist's torch that manipulated their fate. Wind and fire at a killer's hands were more deadly than a bomb. And so their names are added to a heroes list of 80 other firefighters who have died so far this year across America, challenging one of nature's most elemental forces to save others.

At this writing, four are dead in the Thursday flames and a fifth remains connected to a whisper of life that every moment threatens silence.

Those of us who live in canyons and forests know up close how committed are the men and women who face the flames that periodically sweep through vegetation sucked dry by the Santa Anas, as they did in the parched foothills west of Palm Springs.

While we flee, packing photos and pets in our rush, they remain in harm's way, their sirens screaming defiance, their hoses shooting water like cannon fire into heat so intense that it can melt steel, rushing toward the enemy like an army of saints.

The men who died knew the danger of the foe they had come to subdue. They knew the capacity of the devil winds. They knew how quickly fire could roar through brush and fly through treetops, but they went anyhow because what they do is more than a job -- it's a moral commitment.

No amount of training can predict fate's uncertainties when the mountains are ablaze. Like a force wise to our vulnerabilities, fire and wind can attack from the front, the rear and both sides simultaneously, doing a witch's dance around its sacrificial lambs.

As a canyon dweller for the past 30 years, I have viewed with awe the immensity of flames coming toward our home. I have stood on the rooftop to watch a night sky red with fury, holding a garden hose that would have absolutely no effect against the forces that ruled the darkness.

Even miles from the flames, I could feel their heat on my face and could only wonder at the blowtorch intensity the firefighters confronted in the maw of the inferno. There is no way to know the last thoughts of the four firemen Thursday as the wind roared toward them and the arsonist's flames possessed them.

Because of where I live, my concern and my feelings toward those who protect us from fire are deep. I do not use the term heroes casually, because I know the risks that heroes take, and I know the constitution of their will in the last fleeting glory of their existence on Earth.

I have seen men at war rush into machine-gun fire and through open fields of artillery blasts to save others, and have marveled at the audacity of their courage and the physiology that compels them to do these things for us.

What is it that drives heroes forward when their heads have calculated the risks and their hearts tell them their very beings are on the line? By what calculation do they decide not to flee from danger but to race toward it? What manner of altruism makes them stand against a power immeasurably greater than their own?

My son Allan is trained by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy to fight fires and has saved his own home against heat so intense that it melted the soles of his shoes. A small group held fast against flames coming down a hillside and drenched them into ashes before they could take his house.

I don't have to ask why he would do such a thing, because I have known this boy and this man for all of his 41 years, and I know that he would do it because it was his duty to do so, and because there exists in those who face peril a spark of goodness that asks no questions and seeks no answers. As a fireman, uncomfortable with my praise, once responded, "We just do it because it's our job."

I don't think so. I have known many firefighters over the years, especially those who have fought the flames on the ground, under the roar of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, carrying hoses and saws, axes and shovels on their backs, buying time in the forests so that others can run clear of the terrible flames.

There is a nobility to what they do buried in the composition of their very souls, a willingness to take effort beyond the restraints that nature builds into each of us, to cross over barriers of fear and uncertainty, to go forward when the mind screams for them to go back. It is more complicated than any of us will ever be able to explain.

One can only do them honor in words and rituals, thankful that they existed. Bow your heads, good people. Heroes have passed among us.

*

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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