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Thread: First Firefighter Killed in California Blazes

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    First Firefighter Killed in California Blazes

    By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Published: October 29, 2003
    Dave Gatley for The New York Times
    Filed at 9:19 p.m. ET

    LAKE ARROWHEAD, Calif. (AP) -- Firefighters struggled desperately Wednesday to save emptied-out resort towns in Southern California's San Bernardino Mountains as 200-foot walls of flame engulfed dead and dried-out trees.

    In San Diego County, the state's largest fire claimed another victim when a firefighting crew was overcome by flames, killing one and injuring three. It marked the first firefighter death since the series of blazes began last week.

    ``It just swept right over them. They probably didn't have time to get out of the way,'' San Diego County Sheriff's Sgt. Conrad Grayson said.

    The death toll later reached 20 after authorities said two people were found dead Wednesday on an Indian reservation as the result of the same San Diego County fire.

    In the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles, the hot, dry Santa Ana winds from the desert that had been whipping the fires into raging infernos eased Wednesday. But they gave way to stiff breezes off the ocean that pushed the flames up the canyon walls around evacuated mountain enclaves like Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear -- towns that are among Southern California's most popular mountain playgrounds.

    By early afternoon, homes were burning in the mountain community of CedarPines Park. The flames were expected to hit the town of Running Springs after crews weren't able to set backfires along a highway to protect the town. The fires also swept over mountain tops, forcing evacuations in parts of the high desert town of Hesperia.

    ``There's fire on so many fronts, it's not even manageable at this point,'' said Chris Cade, a fire prevention technician with the U.S. Forest Service, as he watched a pillar of smoke he estimated at 9,000 feet rise into a hazy sky thick with ash. ``I am at a loss what you can do about it.''

    The fires have burned more than 620,000 acres and destroyed 2,100 homes. More than 12,000 firefighters and support crew were fighting what Gov. Gray Davis said may be the worst and costliest disaster California has ever faced. He estimated the cost at $2 billion so far.

    The fires burned in a broken arc across Southern California, from Ventura County east to Los Angeles County and the San Bernardino Mountains and south to San Diego County.

    About 100 fire engines encircled the historic mining town of Julian in the mountains of eastern San Diego County, hoping to save the popular weekend getaway community renowned for its vineyards and apple orchards.

    However, some two dozen engines and water tenders that were headed to Julian were forced to turn back when flames swept over a highway. And as the winds picked up, floating embers sparked spot fires near the town of 3,500, forcing some crews to retreat.

    South of Julian, about 90 percent of the homes had been destroyed in Cuyamaca, a lakeside town of about 160 residents. Charred cows lay by the side of the road and houses were reduced to little more than stone entryways.

    ``Everything's kind of happening all at once. These fires are trying really hard to tie in with each other,'' said Bill Bourbeau, a forest safety officer for the Cleveland National Forest. ``It's tremendous.''

    San Diego County fire officials feared a 233,000-acre fire and the 50,000-acre blaze would merge into a huge, single blaze that would make it nearly impossible to keep it from reaching Julian. The firefighting death and injuries occurred in the larger of the two blazes.

    Officials in San Diego County -- where most of the deaths took place -- predicted the death toll would rise after investigators began scouring devastated neighborhoods.

    A crew of U.S. Forest Service Hot Shots outside Julian was given an ominous warning by their team leader: If they came across any human remains, they were to cordon off the area until a medical examiner could get in.

    ``If we find somebody in the brush who took off running or whatever,'' Capt. Fred Brewster told his 19-member team. ``Who knows what you're going to find up there? It's a giant mess.''

    In the San Bernardinos, the cool, moist ocean breezes confounded firefighters, just as the desert winds did over the weekend. Heavy winds kept aircraft grounded in the area, and winds gusting to 60 mph pushed flames up from the mountain slopes into the dense forest.

    ``They turned around with the wind and the fuel and basically overran us,'' San Bernardino County Fire Division Chief Mike Conrad said.

    Firefighters feared that the narrow roads and sheer number of dead trees, ravaged by drought and a bark beetle infestation, could make it impossible to protect some of the smaller communities in the area.

    ``It would be suicide to put anyone in there,'' Conrad said.

    Some 80,000 full-time residents of the San Bernardinos have cleared out since the weekend, thousands of them winding their way in bumper-to-bumper traffic out a narrow highway.

    A steady stream of vehicles loaded with couches, televisions and other household items inched down the mountain Wednesday.

    Others defied the warnings of firefighters and decided to stay to protect their homes.

    ``I'm afraid, but I've got a lot of faith,'' said Chrisann Maurer, as she watered down her yard and home amid smoke-filled winds. ``I just think there is enough people praying that we might be safe.''

    Mark Peterson, a firefighter with the Big Bear Lake Fire Department, said the fire was moving toward Big Bear rapidly and called those who refused to leave ``crazy.''

    California Forestry Department incident commander John Hawkins told exhausted firefighters not to give up.

    ``We hear losses,'' he said. ``But the bottom line is we don't hear how many were saved, how many of you put your name, your body, your heart on the line to save the houses.''

    Across the border in Mexico, wildfires kept students home from school Wednesday in Baja California, but officials said the threat from fires appeared to be easing. The Mexico fires earlier killed two people and destroyed several homes.
    ---

    Associated Press Writers Pauline Arrillaga, Kim Curtis, Ken Ritter and Brian Skoloff contributed to this story.

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    Novato firefighter dies in struggle to save Julian

    One firefighter killed, one suffers major injuries fighting blaze near Julian
    By JEFF DILLON
    SIGNONSANDIEGO
    Updated 11:35 p.m. October 29, 2003

    SAN DIEGO

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    Fallen fire veteran asked for assignment battling huge inferno

    Fallen fire veteran asked for assignment battling huge inferno


    Lisa Leff
    Associated Press
    Oct. 31, 2003 12:00 AM


    NOVATO, Calif. - The firefighter killed when a fast-moving wildfire overtook his four-man crew as they tried to save a home was remembered Thursday as a hard worker dedicated to the job.

    "He wasn't sent there. He asked to go," Novato Deputy Fire Chief Dan Northern said, fighting back tears as he stood beside a makeshift shrine of flowers, photos and the gear Steve Rucker had left behind.

    Rucker, 38, was the first firefighter killed battling the blazes that have ravaged Southern California since the Santa Ana winds began blowing through the parched hills last week. Twenty people have died in wildfires still raging in San Diego, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.

    Rucker and his crew from the Novato Fire Protection District, north of San Francisco, were in San Diego County on Wednesday trying to save a mountain home near Wynola when the fire flared up. The crew was overrun so quickly they didn't have time to reach their engine, said Fred Batchelor, a state fire marshal. He said they tried to take refuge in the house they were trying to protect.

    "It's calm one moment, and the next moment you have an explosive situation," Batchelor said. "In this case, it flared up and rolled in there and engulfed them."

    One of the three surviving crew members, Capt. Doug McDonald, was in critical condition Thursday with burns over 18 percent of his body. The other two, Shawn Kreps and Barrett Smith, were treated for minor burns.

    At the site off California 78, police tape cordoned off the area where Rucker died.

    Hundreds of miles to the north in Novato, Rucker's fellow firefighters remembered the 11-year veteran firefighter and father of two.

    "We're all struggling, trying to make sense of the situation," Northern said. He said Rucker was involved in his community and loved his job.

    Fire Chief Jeff Meston prepared to fly to the San Diego area with members of the firefighters' families on Thursday. He said Rucker was "really one of those firefighters that we all love."

    "He's the kind of guy that organizes for the families - the Easter Bunny coming, Santa Claus coming for the kids," Meston said. "He was just a great man."

    At a morning briefing in the San Diego area, many firefighters wore black bands on their badges in memory of Rucker as they prepared to go out and battle the blaze that had killed him.

    "We know our job is dangerous," said Jim Venneau, a 31-year-old firefighter stationed in nearby Julian. "We know the chances we take when we do these kinds of things. It bothers you. You want to know exactly what happened because you don't want it to happen to you."

    http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/1031wildfires-
    firefighter31.html

    Link for Novato Calif. Fire District. Below
    http://www.novatofire.org/


    A trust fund has been set up for the Rucker family. The fund is The Steven Rucker Fund, at the Bank of Marin. For more information regarding donations, please call the Bank of Marin at (415) 899-7338.

    Donations to "The Steve Rucker Fund" can be sent to:

    Bank of Marin
    Attention: Steve Rucker Fund
    1450 Grant Ave.
    Novato, CA 94945



    Remember Brother Steve and his fellow firefighters..
    Engineer Steven L. Rucker 1965-2003

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