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Thread: California Department of Foresty Loses First Female Firefighter in the Line of Duty

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    California Department of Foresty Loses First Female Firefighter in the Line of Duty

    California Department of Foresty Loses First Female Firefighter in the Line of Duty

    Associated Press

    COLUMBIA, Calif. (AP) -- A member of an elite helicopter wildfire crew has become the first female firefighter from the California Department of Forestry to die in the line of duty, state officials said Monday.

    Officials could give few details about what happened when the seven-member crew was apparently overrun by flames Sunday in rugged terrain of the Stanislaus National Forest.

    The department identified the woman as Eva Schicke, 24, of Arnold.

    "This is a very difficult day for our department,'' said Jim Wright, chief of fire protection at the CDF. "It is just a reminder of the danger our firefighters face on a daily basis.''

    Wright said the crew appeared to have been on the ground about an hour. Their job was to use hand tools to build a fire break ahead of the blaze, which had grown to 800 acres Monday and was 20 percent contained.

    Phyllis Banducci, a CDF spokeswoman, said investigators know little about the accident except that it happened in a canyon area and firefighters recorded a change in the wind at about the same time.

    Six other firefighters suffered minor injuries.

    A college student, Schicke had spent 4 1/2 seasons working as a part-time firefighter.

    Because the death happened in a national forest and involved firefighters working for the state, it will be investigated by federal and state fire officials, CDF Director Dale Geldert said.

    The department's helicopter team members are considered among the best firefighters in the system, Wright said.

    In Arnold, mourners erected a roadside memorial that included flowers and balloons arranged between a pair of boots, a helmet, gloves and a shovel. A bulletin board included notes from friends and colleagues.

    George Muedeking, Schicke's academic adviser at California State University at Stanislaus, said she often returned to register for fall classes wearing military fatigues and still smelling of smoke.

    "Her commitment was very strong when she decided to do something,'' he said. "She really saw it through.''

    Amid the mourning, fire crews worked to contain a separate wildfire threatening the western Sierra Nevada town of Mariposa, about 50 miles south of the blaze that killed Schicke.

    The flames had burned 2,000 acres and forced the evacuation of about 300 homes in the town of 1,400 residents.

    "It almost looks like a volcano has erupted. There is so much ash and so much smoke _ miles and miles of it,'' CDF spokeswoman Olivia Luke said.

    A 34-year-old man was in custody on an arson charge, accused of starting the fire with a match inserted inside a cigarette.

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    Dead firefighter -- 'gritty,' an 'ace'
    24-year-old killed during initial attack on wildfire

    Michael Taylor, Chronicle Staff Writer

    Tuesday, September 14, 2004

    Eva Schicke was the ideal firefighter, tough and smart and gritty.

    She had no apparent qualms about plunging into blazes, the kind that devour forests in minutes and on Sunday afternoon devoured Schicke.

    Schicke (pronounced SHY-key) was the first female firefighter and the 70th overall to die on the job in the nearly 100-year history of California Department of Forestry. Ironically, the fire that killed her wasn't one of those monster fires, the ones that consume tens of thousands of acres; it was an 800-acre blaze in the Stanislaus National Forest, and it caught Schicke so quickly that she had no chance to escape it.

    Schicke, 24, helicoptered into the Tuolumne River Canyon just west of Yosemite National Park as part of an elite Helitack crew that charges into a fire and "provides a quick holding action until more resources can get there," said Schicke's boss and mentor, Forestry Department Battalion Chief Jeff Millar, a 25-year veteran who recruited Schicke and helped turn her from a green firefighter into what he called "an ace."

    Schicke was one of a crew of seven -- a captain and six firefighters --

    who were overrun by the fire, which started Sunday. A Forestry Department spokesman said the fire was about 20 percent contained Monday evening and should be completely contained by Friday. Officials said the cause had not been determined.

    Forestry Department spokeswoman Debbie Keenan said the helicopter carrying Schicke and the other firefighters had lifted off from the department's air base in Columbia (Tuolumne County), not far from the town of Sonora, about 12:40 p.m. Sunday.

    The flight normally takes 10 to 12 minutes, Keenan said, and then drops down and drops off the Helitack crew, young men and women in peak physical condition. They're loaded down with shovels, axes and back pumps containing 5 gallons of water.

    "They fly in there so fast, they're often there before anyone else," Millar said. The helicopters are Vietnam War surplus Hueys, some of them with patched-up bullet holes, and they drop down near the fire. The crew scrambles off and hikes into the blaze.

    "On the ground, they start separating the fuel from the fire," Millar said. "They throw dirt at the base of the fire or they start lighting backfires. It's inherently risky."

    Forestry Department officials are not sure exactly what happened Sunday - - they have begun an investigation into the incident -- but they believe the crew hiked into the fire area, began fighting it with hand tools and suddenly encountered a "burnover," a raging flare-up that overcame them as they fled it.

    Schicke was killed, and the six other members of the Helitack crew were injured. Capt. Jonah Winger, 29; and firefighters Jon Andahl, 23, Josh Augustin, 29, Thomas Frazer, 25, and Jeff Boatman were taken to Sonora Regional Medical Center in Sonora, where they were treated and released for minor burns and abrasions. Firefighter Shane Neveau was flown to Doctors Medical Center in Modesto, where he was treated for burn injuries and released.

    In Sacramento, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said, "In the face of danger, Eva acted with courage and commitment, giving her life for the protection of her fellow Californians."

    In the close-knit world of firefighting, Schicke's death was devastating.

    "It's horrifying," said Judy Ward, a Forestry Department official. "It just breaks my heart to think about it."

    And it was particularly devastating for Battalion Chief Millar.

    A few years ago, Millar's wife was a basketball coach at Cal State Stanislaus in Turlock, and Schicke was a tough and resourceful forward on the women's basketball team. Her senior year, she started all 27 games and was the second-leading scorer.

    "Athletes and firefighters have a lot of crossover characteristics that are desirable," Millar said, "like physical challenge. They're used to hard work, they're used to pushing themselves. They like the rush and the adrenaline. Eva had all those things."

    Schicke, like a lot of college kids who need money, started working for the Forestry Department as a summer job. She graduated from Stanislaus in 2002 with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and became a full-time firefighter for the department.

    "She was just a real tough kid. 'Gritty' is the word," Millar said. "My wife said she had a blue-collar work ethic on the basketball court -- get in there, and get the job done. She didn't need the limelight.

    "It's like watching your own kids grow up," the 43-year-old Millar said of his years teaching Schicke about fires, "watching her develop from not knowing the job.

    "She was just a hell of a kid," Millar said, pausing for a moment. "It's tough."

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    Elite firefighter is mourned

    Camino woman, 24, dies battling blaze

    By Mareva Brown -- Bee Staff Writer
    Published 2:15 am PDT Tuesday, September 14, 2004

    Eva Schicke was living her dream, fighting fire on one of the state's most elite wildland crews. But on Sunday, in a devastating reminder of the job's dangers, she became the first state firefighter killed in 14 years when flames overran her in a steep canyon along the Tuolumne River.

    A Camino native and former standout basketball guard at Ponderosa High School, Schicke, 24, was remembered by friends Monday as outgoing and enthusiastic, a person who led by example.

    Five years ago, she began spending her summer breaks from California State University, Stanislaus, as a seasonal firefighter for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. This summer was her first as part of a "helitack" crew - seven well-trained firefighters who are dropped by helicopter into remote, rugged terrain to cut lines around wildland flames.

    "Eva was a top gun, so to speak," CDF Director Dale T. Geldert said. "Only the very best get on the helitack crews."

    On Monday morning, as Geldert choked back his tears before news cameras, a search and rescue team carried Schicke's burned body out of the canyon in a metal basket.

    Her crew, stationed at the Columbia Air Attack Base north of Sonora, was dispatched to the Tuolumne fire about 12:40 p.m. Sunday, shortly after a lookout spotted flames in a deep canyon near Jawbone Ridge, CDF spokeswoman Sharon Torrence said Monday.

    The crew boarded Helicopter No. 404 for a 15-minute ride to the blaze. They were dropped on a road near the Lumsden Bridge campground in an area east of Groveland, officials said. Marked by steep peaks and deep river canyons, the area lies just north of Highway 120, west of Yosemite National Park.

    The crew's captain, Jonah Winger, identified two safe zones for crew members, should fire conditions require an immediate escape, and the crew went to work, according to fire officials.

    Less than an hour later, the CDF command post was notified that firefighters were injured and needed an ambulance.

    On Monday, investigators said they weren't sure how far from the drop-off point the crew ran into trouble or where crew members were positioned in the canyon when they noticed flames racing toward them.

    CDF spokeswoman Karen Terrill said none of the firefighters had time to deploy their safety tents, which are designed to protect them from intense heat and flames should a fire overrun them.

    The other six crew members were treated for various injuries and released. One, 24-year-old Shane Neveau, was burned, but not severely. Neveau, Winger and the other four firefighters - Jon Andahl, Josh Agustin, Thomas Fraser and Jeff Boatman - had been sent home by early Monday, according to officials.

    Schicke's badly burned body was found Sunday at the bottom of a steep, rocky canyon. As daylight waned, officials decided to wait until Monday to retrieve it, to avoid risking anyone else's life.

    A CDF firefighter sat sentinel near Schicke's body until morning.

    "She was attended all night; she was not left alone," CDF Fire Protection Chief Jim Wright said.

    Schicke, one of 448 women among CDF's nearly 5,000 firefighters, was the department's first female firefighter to die in the line of duty. She was the 70th CDF firefighter to perish in the agency's history.

    The Yosemite park area was the scene of another recent firefighter tragedy. A C-130A air tanker was battling a blaze near Yosemite National Park in June 2002 when suddenly the plane lost both wings and crashed, killing all three of its crew.

    Schicke's death stunned the agency.

    Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger released a statement Monday, commending Schicke for her "courage and commitment," and expressing sympathy to her family. "Eva's death is a tremendous loss," he said.

    Tuolumne County coroner's spokesman Jim Oliver said an autopsy will be conducted this week.

    On Monday, as firefighters continued to battle the 590-acre Tuolumne blaze, officials warned of potentially "extreme" fire behavior because of low humidity and dry brush. The fire's cause is under investigation.

    Meanwhile, people who knew Schicke struggled for words to describe her and why she became a firefighter.

    "She's just a beautiful kid," said CDF Battalion Chief Jeff Millar, who recruited Schicke. His wife was Schicke's basketball coach at Stanislaus State, and Schicke sometimes baby-sat for their two children.

    "She loved the excitement, the camaraderie, the physical challenge - she'd rise to it," he said. "She was just tough as nails in a determined, gritty way, not a swaggering way."

    Millar said Schicke was "thrilled" to be chosen for the helitack crew.

    "It was a big deal to be selected," he said. "And to be a woman and be selected is even a bigger deal because it means you're one of the best. She was excited about it."

    In Camino, Schicke's mother turned away a steady stream of friends and media representatives from her front doorstep.

    The past several years have been marked by pain for the family. Schicke's father died of cancer shortly after she graduated from high school. Her brother, John, just a year older, returned from Iraq within the last year, but a motorcycle accident kept him from embarking on his second tour of duty.

    "(Eva) was very close to her family," said Stacy Vegna, a prayer partner of Schicke's mother, Joyce, for the past 10 years. Eva Schicke, she said, was ambitious and friendly, determined to be the best at whatever she wanted to do.

    Schicke had a rare combination of personality and physical prowess that made her a natural leader on - and off - the basketball court, said Ponderosa High's athletic director, Lee Attabit.

    "She was a very warm and genuine person," he said. "Very much a team leader. She always led by example rather than with words."

    As he choked back tears, Ponderosa basketball coach Peter Dwyer remembered a girl with a bright future whose lack of self-awareness made her all the more charming.

    "She was drop-dead gorgeous, a beautiful girl," said Dwyer, whose own daughter was a basketball teammate and close friend. "And she had no clue how beautiful she was. It made her that much better. ... There was a side of her that wanted to be a mom and a lot of things. But I don't think she ever got a chance to figure it out."

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    Thousands Bid Farewell to Fallen CDF Firefighter Eva Schicke

    Elite Helitack Firefighter Eva Schicke took her last flight in the storied foothills of Calaveras County.

    Thousands came to bid her farewell.

    In an emotional ceremony that mixed fire service tradition with the sorrow of lost youth, uniformed firefighters from up and down the state marched solemnly into the Calaveras County fairgrounds to honor Schicke. In her fifth season as a CDF firefigther, Eva died September 12th while battling a fast-moving wildland fire in the Stanislaus National Forest.

    Schicke is the first woman in CDF history to die in action, and the first CDF firefighter to fall in action since 1990.

    More than 300 pieces of apparatus, including one entire CDF unit, stretched through narrow foothill roads for nearly two miles. They joined a uniform procession numbering some 2,000 -- a procession so long it took nearly an hour to fill the fairgrounds ampitheater. All fell in behind CDF Engine 4474 -- Eva's engine when stationed at the CDF Arnold station -- which bore her flag-draped casket.

    With her Helitack crew as pallbearers, Schicke's casket was lifted tenderly from the reig and presented with full honors.

    "My sister was everything to me," mourned brother John Schicke. "She was the wisest young person I have ever known."

    Tough ... sincere ... determined ... courageous. These are some of the words used to describe Eva Schicke.

    A varsity basketball star at College of Stanislaus, Eve came to CDF as a rookie firefighter in 1999. Four years later, she was tapped to be part of the elite Helitack crew -- firefighters airlifted into difficult fire areas as part of a strong initial attack.

    "Eva thrived in our world," recalled Battalion Chief Jeff Milar, the officer who recruited Schicke. "She loved the challenge and was tough as nails. There are not enough words to describe how special she was."

    As she was eulogized for her strength, competitiveness, commitment and faith, Eva's Helitack crew members -- many of whom were themselves injured in the incident that took her life -- stood by as silent pallbearers.

    As the ringing of the Firefighters Last Alarm echoed in the foothills, a CDF helicopter hovered steadily overhead, floating painfully away as if unwilling to let her go.

    "Eva Schicke is a California bookmark," said CDF Firefighters President Bob Wolf. "The decency, discipline, delight and honor that Eva brings to our profession is now a part of our history."

    Finally, when the time came, it was her crew that gently carried her away in Helitack Copter 404.

    Eva's last flight.

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    Eva Schicke's remains were flown home Monday, amid a chorus of bagpipes and to the salute of 2,000 solemn firefighters in formal black and blue dress.

    It had been a day of somber celebration for Schicke, the 23-year-old Turlock-born firefighter who was killed Sept. 12 battling a wildfire east of Groveland in southern Tuolumne County.

    The first woman in the history of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to die in action, Schicke was remembered by family and friends during a touching, three-hour public ceremony that attracted close to 4,000 people to the Calaveras County Fairgrounds.

    It ended with members of the Columbia Helitack crew, Schicke's co-workers since June, loading her coffin aboard the department helicopter for the short flight back to Columbia.

    Her family will take her remains from there to their home in Placerville. Services will be private.

    Among the speakers at the Angels Camp ceremony Monday was Schicke's fianc

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    Thousands Gather To Remember Eva Schicke

    Firefighters From All Over California Converge Just Outside Groveland

    GROVELAND, Calif. -- Thousands of people turned up a the Calaveras County Fairgrounds Monday to mourn the first female firefighter from the California Department of Forestry to die in the line of duty.

    Eva Schicke, 23, died Sept. 12 in the Tuolumne Fire near Groveland, when the blaze swept over her and her crew members.

    The men and women with whom Schicke served were proud of her.

    "Everybody here is really hurt by it. We have come out to show our support for the family," said Vallecito CDF spokesman Brad Stratton.

    "When we lose somebody in this field, we all take a back seat and think about what we do -- No. 1, our family, and then the rest of our co-workers," said Vallecito CDF spokesman Mike Spear.

    A crowd of about 3,000 was on hand for the memorial Monday. Half of the mourners were firefighters from around California.

    CDF Battalion Chief Jeff Milar, who was one of the speakers, recruited Schicke into the fire service.

    "Eva thrived in our world. She loved the challenge of fighting fires and the comaraderie she found in the station and the air base," Milar said. "She was always smiling on the job."

    Schicke was the 70th CDF firefighter to die in the line of duty, and the first CDF firefighter to lose her life since 1990.

    During the ceremony, bells chimed for Schicke, and planes streaked across the sky in a salute to one of their own.

    Schicke's casket was taken from the fairgrounds in the same type of helicopter she worked from while battling fires.

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    Woman lost fighting Calif. wildfires lives in crewmates' memory

    By Chelsea J. Carter


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    Firefighter killed in Calif blaze ID'd

    Investigation under way
    By Jim Wasserman


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    Schicke, Eva Marie

    Age: 23
    Cause of Death: Caught or Trapped
    Rank: Firefighter
    Nature of Death: Asphyxiation
    Classification: Wildland Full-Time
    Emergency Duty: Yes

    Incident Date: 09/12/2004
    Duty Type: On-Scene Fire
    Incident Time: 15:00
    Activity Type: Advance Hose Lines/Fire Attack (includes Wildland)
    Death Date: 09/12/2004
    Fixed Prop. Use: Outdoor Property

    Fire Dept. Info:
    California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection
    1416 9th Street
    PO Box 944246
    Sacramento , California 94244-2460
    Chief: Director Dale Geldert

    Final Summary:
    Firefighter Schicke was a member of an elite 9 person helitack team. The team was called to fight the beginning stages of the Tuolumne Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest. When the team arrived aboard their helicopter, 7 members of the team were dropped off, and 2 members remained with the helicopter to begin water drops. Firefighters established safety zones and began their decent into a steep canyon. The fire was moving up the canyon away from them and had displayed mild behavior at this point in the incident. While the crew was working, a wind shift blew the fire toward the crew. With only moments to react due to the speed of the fire, firefighters were forced to run to their safety zones. Firefighter Schicke and another firefighter attempted to run uphill to the roadside safety zone. The first firefighter made it to safety; the fire overran Firefighter Schicke before she could reach the safety of the road. The cause of death for Firefighter Schicke was smoke inhalation. Firefighter Schicke was the first female CDF firefighter to be killed in the line of duty.

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    Two Minutes And Five Feet Were Fatal For Slain California Firefighter

    Associated Press

    SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Eva Schicke made it within five feet of the road where two colleagues safely found shelter before she disappeared in the fire that had turned on her seven-member crew 30 seconds after the wind shifted directions, according to a preliminary report on the death of the 23-year-old firefighter.

    The report, released to employees of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection last Friday as a training tool, offers a glimpse of how suddenly a routine late-summer mission in Stanislaus National Forest turned tragically awry for the members of CDF Columbia Helitack 404 on Sept. 12.

    The crew had been in the forest using hand tools to build a fire line on a steep slope between Lumsden Road and the Tuolumne River Canyon for less than an hour when the light and steady wind abruptly gusted, sending ``a sheet of fire'' uphill toward them, Schicke's crew mates told investigators from CDF and the U.S. Forest Service.

    Three firefighters ``shouted the alarm'' to their colleagues, and all members of the crew raced toward two of the previously identified ``safety zones'' _ one in the river bed, the other up on the road.

    Four crew members made it back down to the river - the captain and a firefighter after running through a hole in the flames _ and a fifth crew member who had gone back up to the road to retrieve a piece of equipment found safety there.

    One other firefighter and Schicke scrambled the 20-to-30 feet after him, according to the report, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press. In the five-page document, which identifies the crew members by number instead of name, Schicke is Firefighter No. 3, the colleague closest to her Firefighter No. 2.

    ``FF2 rolled over the lip of the road within the oncoming flame front as the fire hit the road,'' it states. ``FF3 was last seen by FF2 immediately behind approximately 5 feet from the road. FF3 did not reach the road.''

    The crew realized Schicke was missing in the thick smoke after the captain conducted a count by walkie-talkie. They called for their helicopter to drop buckets of water on the area and started searching for her. By the time the water arrived, the wind had died down and the fire had returned to its previous lateral direction.

    ``Firefighters on-scene estimated the elapsed time from the wind shift to the burn-over was less than 30 seconds with the total wind event lasting less than two minutes,'' the report states.

    But it was already too late.

    ``As the smoke cleared and bucket drops cooled the area, the searchers discovered the body of FF3 located in the newly burned area approximately 100 feet below the road,'' according to the report.

    The firefighter who was next to Schicke on the hill was treated for smoke inhalation and minor burns. The crew captain suffered minor burns on his head and face, while the firefighter who fled downhill with him broke a rib and broke an ankle, the report said.

    He appeared on crutches at Schicke's funeral on Monday, but the rest of the crew, which carried her casket to their helicopter for the ride to a private burial, did not display any physical evidence of their ordeal.

    Schicke, the first female CDF firefighter to be killed in the line of duty, was in her fifth season as a firefighter but only her first as a member of an elite helicopter squad. A complete investigation into the circumstances that led to her death is expected to take several more weeks, if not months, according to CDF spokeswoman Karen Terrill.

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