Smoke plumes billow miles into the summer sky.
The noontime air Monday feels hot, dusty and dry.
On a patch of ground surrounding the somewhat remote Hansen Dam in Lake View Terrace, as many as 5,000 firefighters, police officers and a host of support staff have gathered to plan their attack on the 105,000-acre Station Fire.
Although they lost two colleagues in the battle Sunday, there is no time for firefighters to mourn the deaths of Arnaldo “Arnie” Quinones nor Tedmund “Ted” Hall.
The two died battling the blaze near Mt. Gleason. Officials believe Hall’s truck flipped over on a narrow fire road as he and Quinones attempted to flee a wall of flame that ultimately overran them.
In a crisp one-page memo, Shelly Cook, an analyst with the National Forest Service, provided details of the Station Fire’s hellish actions Sunday afternoon.
“Fire behavior was extreme, with rapid rates of spread and stupendous flame lengths,” Cook wrote.
The briefing goes on to describe the fire that spewed burning embers a mile ahead of its path; spread at
3 mph in most directions; had flame lengths of 30 to 150 feet; and continued to chew up brush dry enough to have a 90 percent probability of ignition.
The briefing ends with a quote from writer Louis L’amour: “Victory is not won in miles, but in inches. Win a little now, hold your ground, and later win a little more.”
A retired Los Angeles County battalion commander speaking to KFI radio’s Bill Handel on Monday afternoon summed up the feelings of firefighters coping with the loss of their colleagues, while still battling the blaze.
“It’s going to be tough,” he said. “The guys are going to be down. This is a dangerous, unpredictable fire. These two guys paid the big price.”
There are times when the life of a fireman seems like a life of ease. There are endless card games. Many lose count of hours they’ve spent perusing the Internet, or lifting weights, or just kicking back in a chair behind the station with a tasty stogie.
But, there are also those times at
3 a.m. when an elderly woman is suffering a stroke or seizure, those calls at midday when a baby falls into a swimming pool and those Friday nights mopping up after a traffic accident has claimed the life of a teenager.
Sometimes the elderly woman is the same age as their mom, the baby just like their own newborn, or the teen like the daughter they’ve just sent packing off to college.
Then there are those long summer nights out in the middle of a hot, dusty wasteland spent protecting the homes of people who can’t fight off 80-foot flames with a garden hose.
Looking out over the Hansen Dam parking lot at the pup tents, the neatly parked fire engines, the trucks hauling food and supplies, it dawned on me that the scene looked like something from those Matthew Brady Civil War photographs of exhausted, battle-worn soldiers back from the front lines.
Then I realized that Hall and Quinones were modern soldiers who gave their lives to protect all of us.