Report recounts firefighter death

Life lost in Oct. blaze near San Diego

Jeremy Hay
Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.)
Dec. 12, 2003 12:00 AM

SANTA ROSA, Calif. - The first in-depth report about a firefighter's death in a rampaging October wildfire near San Diego depicts a horrific scene of nature overpowering a crew of expertly trained firefighters.

A rapid increase in wind speed and an unexpected change in its direction contributed to the Oct. 29 accident, according to the report released by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Novato Fire Protection District Engineer Steven Rucker was the only firefighter killed during the weeks-long battle to contain 11 wildfires that raged across Southern California.

First details

The report is the first detailed account of the events in the village of Wynola, in rural San Diego County, where Rucker, Capt. Doug McDonald, Engineer Shawn Kreps and Firefighter Barrett Smith were assigned to protect a house and were overrun by flames.

Smith and Kreps suffered minor burns and have returned to work; McDonald is recovering at home from second-degree burns to 28 percent of his body.

Novato Deputy Fire Chief Dan Northern said Tuesday that the department's firefighters and staff, all of whom have received a copy of the report, already knew most of what it contains.

A follow-up report is expected early next year, CDF spokesman Harry Martin said.

The 10-page summary released this week offered no conclusions and made no recommendations about the tactics used by McDonald and his crew or by officials in charge of fighting the "Cedar" fire.

This, the report said, is what happened:

At 12:15 p.m. Oct. 29, members of McDonald's team were assigned to protect a wood-framed stucco house, and burned themselves a protective clearing around the building.

Over the next 10 minutes, the crew burned protective zones around a nearby house and attempted to do the same at a third house, but retreated from that effort when the flames grew out of control. They called in a helicopter that dropped retardant and slowed that section of fire.

A senior strike team leader arrived at 12:25 p.m. and spent five minutes reviewing the progress and plans of McDonald's crew, which included laying hose around the engine as well as identifying the house as a possible refuge and leaving an ax at its back door.

As the strike team leader left, the report said, the Novato firefighters noted "an increase in the fire activity below them."

The fire began racing uphill through a half-mile of heavy brush and oak trees, reaching the crew within two minutes.

In that brief window, the firefighters retreated to the passenger side of their engine, training hoses on the approaching flames.

Fire was "blowing" across the driveway, the report said, and 50-foot-high flames were directly below them. Bushes on the patio were burning.

On McDonald's orders, Smith ran for the back door, about 170 feet away, followed by Kreps, who stumbled but recovered his footing.

Rucker put on a hose pack. Smith and Kreps reached the back door and used the ax to burst in but, realizing that McDonald and Rucker weren't behind them, they ventured back.

At this time, the report said, "a radio call is heard indicating a firefighter is down."

Running around the house, they saw the patio engulfed in flames and McDonald staggering out of the flames. The report said, "He appears to be dazed."

The report goes on: "The captain tells them that (Rucker) has fallen and states they need to go back for him; the captain then turns to go back after the fallen engineer."

Rescue plan

Smith and Kreps determined "that the patio area is untenable," and the three retreated inside to formulate a plan to reach Rucker, the report said.

They tried once and were forced back inside. Trying again a few minutes later, Kreps saw Rucker's body on the patio. He tried to reach it but had to take shelter in the engine.

"Concerned that (Smith and McDonald) may come searching for him," Kreps ran back to the house.

As fire began to devour the house, the three firefighters fled to the engine.

They drove blind, using the feel of the tires leaving the road's edge to navigate.

McDonald radioed a "firefighter down" message before the firefighters encountered another crew that provided medical help before they were taken by helicopter to a hospital.

The house they were trying to save burned to the ground.

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