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Suddenly, flames surround fire crew

Sesnon fire 'exploded and started raining embers,' a captain says. 'It was incredible.'

October 15, 2008|Robert J. Lopez | Times Staff Writer

It was one of those moments firefighters fear most.

Los Angeles Fire Capt. Scott Gould was riding inside Engine 228 as it maneuvered along a winding canyon above Porter Ranch. He was talking on the radio with Capt. Richard Brunson, who was just ahead in Engine 8.

Commanding the first two units to arrive at the Sesnon fire Monday morning, the captains were coordinating their assault on the wind-whipped blaze. What had been a half-acre fire only a few minutes earlier was now 20 acres and growing.

As Brunson reached the flames along Limekiln Canyon, Gould could see that a spot fire had broken out several hundred yards below. If the new fire got going, he recalled thinking, Brunson would be trapped. Gould and his crew pulled a hose from their engine and began trying to knock down the blaze.

In what seemed like only an instant, the two captains later recalled, flames were everywhere.

"The fire exploded and started raining embers all around that canyon," Gould said Tuesday. "It was incredible. All the ridge lines were going up in flames."

Brunson, meanwhile, faced another wall of fire, fanned by winds in excess of 30 mph. He decided to try pulling back a couple miles down the road, where he and his crew could join other units to protect structures and help with evacuations.

"We went into defensive mode," he said.

But as he headed down the canyon, he saw that flames were beginning to devour brush all around Gould and his crew. Brunson jumped out of his engine and ran toward Gould.

"Drop your hose and leave!" he recalled shouting. "Get the hell out of here!"

Brunson's engine led the way down the road as Gould and his crew jumped in the cab of their truck. But it was too late. It was as if incendiary bombs were exploding everywhere, Gould said.

"It just started spotting all around," he said of the flames.

Gould weighed his options and knew they weren't good. "Engine 228 is trapped," he barked into his radio. "We're surrounded."

Firefighter Paul Clark, who was with Gould, said that the flames were on both sides of the road.

"It was safer to stay where we were," he said.

Looking at his map book, Gould radioed in his coordinates and asked for a "priority" water drop. He and his three-man crew hunkered down in the cab of their engine as flames raced around them.

The smoke was so thick the crew could see only a few feet in front of them, and the water-dropping helicopter overhead couldn't see them either.

"Can you spot the copter so we can get a drop on you?" Gould recalled the dispatcher asking.

For the next 15 minutes, Gould and his crew kept shifting their fire engine into small areas that were partially burned -- offering a bit of protection -- as the wind fanned the flames back and forth across the canyon.

"We were lucky because of the winds," Clark said. "It didn't light everything off at the same time."

In the end, Gould said, it was the erratic winds that allowed his crew to escape.

They received word from the helicopter that the road was clear. He and his men made it out and spent the rest of the day fighting the Sesnon fire.


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