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Fire's aftermath a project itself

Once a fire is out, crews fix or restore damage done in fighting the blaze, such as filling tractor tread prints in Anaheim Hills.

March 16, 2007|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

Turkey vultures and red-tailed hawks circled lazily over the Weir Canyon Wilderness Area, gliding on an air current that breezed through the canyon with the smell of charred vegetation from last weekend's Windy Ridge fire.

The 2,036-acre fire was declared under control Wednesday evening, but on Thursday two fire crews were still in the area. They were not keeping watch for flare-ups, but to erase any sign that dozens of firefighters had tromped through the area in the last few days.

They were doing fire repression repairs, fixing damage firefighters had done to the land.

"If a fence burns, Mother Nature did that. If we cut the fence to fight the fire, we did that," said George Ewan, wild land fire defense planner for the Orange County Fire Authority. "The same thing with 'dozer trails. Any imprint we left behind fighting the fire, we repair or make good before leaving."

Bre Tillman, 24, and eight other firefighters trudged single file up a hill, walking in the scars left by bulldozer treads where the machine climbed to cut a firebreak. The incline proved too steep for the driver, who inched the dozer back down to the access road below.

The tread marks left behind defiled a rustic scene of oak trees, prickly pear cactus and grasses.

Tillman was wielding a chain saw Sunday when her crew was cutting firebreaks that helped stop the blaze and save hundreds of expensive homes in Anaheim Hills and Orange. But on this day, their job was to obliterate the bulldozer trail on Irvine Co. property, a protected wilderness area adjacent to Irvine Regional Park.

Using rakes and shovels, the nine-person crew rubbed out the tread marks in about 10 minutes, camouflaging the ground with grass and branches from oaks, lemonade berry and sumac. The job was tame compared with Sunday's experience on the fire line, but for Tillman, a seasonal firefighter, it was another step in fulfilling her dream of battling fires full time.

"I like fighting fires outdoors, being in front of the line with my chain saw, making openings wide enough to control a fire," said Tillman, a firefighter for less than a year.

Nearby, Trish Smith of the Nature Conservancy watched as a California Department of Forestry crew from Oak Glen in San Bernardino County removed a dirt berm that had been shoved against a group of oaks lining one side of the access road. The road had been widened at that spot to accommodate two vehicles.

The conservancy manages wild lands for the Irvine Co., and Smith must approve all landscape repairs.

About half of the burned acreage is on Irvine Co. property. Because it is a protected area in an unincorporated part of Orange County, the work is being paid for with public funds.

Landscape repairs began Monday by crews who trailed firefighters pushing the fire back. The crews doing repairs Thursday were expected to be released in the afternoon, officially closing the book on the Windy Ridge fire.

"The glory side is fighting the fire. People think that when the fire is out we just go home," Ewan said. "The other side is cleaning up and taking care of the environment. That's when we leave."

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hgreza@latimes.com

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