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  • Anyone see this???

    I found this on the Associated Press website, in the US news page. It's apparently the last in a series of 5 articles "portraying courage in wildfire's way."


    CONCOW, Calif. (AP) — Beneath swirling smoke, Capt. Darryl Sanford sees light at the end of the hallway — faint and orange, from the fire outside.

    It means a window. It means escape.

    He pushes the woman toward it. Beverly Brooks is fading fast, her emphysema aggravated by the smoke and sheer terror of being trapped in a burning house. Sanford is getting lightheaded himself.

    He herds her into a bedroom and slams the door behind them to buy time. Yes, there's a window. The sill is high, about four feet up. It has a 4-foot-wide picture window in the center, bracketed by two sliding sections, each about 2 feet across.

    It will be a heave to get Brooks out. Sixty-seven years old and just 4-feet-11, she's a heavyset 145 pounds. But Sanford figures he can help her squeeze through one of the sliding windows, if first he can get her across the huge bed in the way.

    He'll have to try. Every other exit has been sealed by the wildfire rioting outside. Ten minutes ago, Sanford told Brooks he'd try to save her house. Now, with fire in the kitchen, attic and living room, they're desperate to save themselves.

    Brooks is no longer talking. She leans against the bed, gasping.

    ``We've got to go out that window,'' Sanford yells.

    No sooner does he say it than flames fill the window.

    Their escape route is gone.

    ``Jesus help me!'' Sanford cries.

    He steps across the mattress to the window, slides open the left side and peers out. Wind-driven flames are eddying off the roof, circling down toward the ground and shooting back up along the outside wall.

    Maybe they can make it after all, Sanford thinks. They'll surely get burned, especially Brooks in her nightgown. But it beats staying put.

    He clambers back over the bed and seizes Brooks' shoulders. But she has gone limp, collapsing against the edge of the bed. He can't get her out without her help. Even if he can drag her across the bed and push her out the window, she'll land in burning grass, unable to save herself.

    There are no more options.

    Sanford stands paralyzed. A firefighter does not leave someone behind. Yet if he doesn't leave her, two people will die here, not one.

    ``C'mon. We gotta go. We gotta go.'' He grabs her shoulders again. She doesn't move.

    He cannot abandon her. He must not.

    Suddenly the room brightens. The heat soars, and pain sears Sanford's face. This is flashover, when a room's materials, heated to the ignition point, spontaneously burst into flame. They are about to be cooked.

    Sanford is no longer thinking. He is reacting. With a bounding step across the bed, he launches himself headfirst toward the window, diving through the screen like a swimmer into surf.

    He lands on hands and knees in the flaming grass. Immediately, his fingers start burning through his leather gloves. His back and arm are blistering beneath his fire-retardant shirt. He bounces to his feet and runs. Under torching trees, across the burning lawn, he runs.

    Back at the engine in the driveway, firefighter Will Krings is frantically trying to reconnect a hose. Just a few more seconds, he thinks, and he'll be able to break a front window and lay down some water to help Sanford and the woman escape — if he can find them.

    Now a silhouette wavers against the orange at the corner of the house. Sanford is streaking toward him, like an ember spit from the fire. His eyes are wild, his cheeks crimson. He fumbles off his gloves, and Krings can see the fingers are already blistering.

    ``Where's the lady?''

    ``I had to leave her.''

    Sanford stares blankly. Krings stares back, unable to think of what to say.

    Sanford breaks the silence.

    ``I'm burned. I need water.''

    Krings pours bottled water into Sanford's cupped hands, then drives them both part way down the hill, where they wait out the fire in a black spot already burned over.

    Rushed by fire truck, ambulance and helicopter to a hospital 20 miles away in Chico, Sanford is treated for second-degree burns on his back, face, fingers and elbow. Burned red into his back are the letters ``C'' and ``F,'' branded there by the ``CDF Fire'' logo on his T-shirt as he sprinted through the flames.

    By 7 a.m., less than four hours after his narrow escape, he's back at the fire station, lying on his bunk. All he wants to do is sleep, but he can't. The fire scorched his corneas, and it hurts too much to close his eyes.


    The wildfire, done with Beverly Brooks' house, races southwest along Nelson Bar Road and toward Oroville Lake.

    Norm and Lesta Williams flee in their pickup truck and motor home, driving past flaming houses and trees. Their own home survives, surrounded by fire engines. Just 200 feet away, the house that Norm's parents built in 1910 burns to the ground.

    By midmorning, the wind has faded and the fire is losing power, burning through grass and brush more sparse than the timber and thicket that stoked its early-morning rage. By Wednesday afternoon, just 24 hours after it started, the fire slows enough to let firefighters rein it in again — this time for good.

    The triple-digit heat sinks into the 90s on Thursday, then into the 70s on Friday, Sept. 22. Autumn has arrived, and firefighters turn to mop-up, dousing spot fires and mending bulldozer-flattened fences.

    Officials tally the numbers of the Concow Incident: 1,845 acres burned, 1,558 personnel assigned, 16 homes destroyed, 48 homes saved.

    And one life lost. Beverly Brooks is buried in Yankee Hill Cemetery, a mile from home. Her son Barry, hoping to erase the awful memories, pays a wrecking crew to cart away every last bit of rubble.

    The county files charges against Jim Stewart, the backyard bulldozer operator, claiming that the dozer's blade or tread struck a rock to spark the fire. Stewart, facing possible liability for $4 million in property losses and firefighting costs, insists he didn't do it.

    By and large, Stewart's burned-out neighbors don't blame him. Many direct their anger at the firefighters instead.

    Rumors fly that firefighters' own back fires caused much of the damage, an assertion vehemently denied by fire officials. Some residents complain that more wasn't done to protect houses. The firefighters shrug and point to homes they did save, including pine-draped bungalows that by all rights should have burned.

    The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection investigates Brooks' death and the fire-shelter deployment.

    In a preliminary report released Feb. 8, investigators suggest that Engineer Tony Brownell should have notified supervisors before setting the back fire that blew up and pinned him and his crew beneath fire shelters.

    Brownell draws a different lesson. Chastened by his close call, the man known for his aggressive firefighting says he'll be less likely to defend a marginal home next time.

    ``I think I'd just leave,'' Brownell tells investigators. ``I don't know, maybe we were too much at risk.''

    As for Capt. Darryl Sanford, the agency's top fire official says it appears Sanford went beyond the call of duty to stay as long as he did while fire engulfed Brooks' house.

    ``We don't expect our firefighters to give their lives for this kind of thing, and I don't think anybody else does,'' says Glen Newman, CDF's deputy director for fire protection. ``We have to teach people to give us a defensible space. They can't expect us to do the impossible.''

    Honored by the American Red Cross as a ``Real Hero,'' Sanford says he doesn't feel like one.

    His burns are healed now, but that fiery night on Stagecoach Lane haunts him. Trusting that God makes things happen for a reason, he tries not to beat himself up over it. He knows there will be a next time. There always is.

    On Nelson Bar Road, new homes are going up where the old ones burned down. Along Stagecoach Lane, the pasture is green again. Flowers soon will fill the field, and by July the weeds will be 3 feet tall.

    They will be brittle, brown and ready to burn.


  • #2
    PART 1
    Courage in a Land Meant To Burn

    Associated Press Writer

    EDITOR'S NOTE — They call it the Concow Incident, one of thousands of wildfires that blackened the West in 2000. This is Part 1 of a five-day serial portraying courage in wildfire's way.

    CONCOW, Calif. (AP) — The house is gone. Anything that could burn was swallowed up in minutes that night, and a bulldozer later scraped away the rest: a forlorn chimney, shattered dishes, the skeleton of a kitchen stove.

    Everything, gone.

    But Darryl Sanford still sees it all. The fire captain stands in what used to be the front yard, staring up at the charred limbs of a big oak tree.

    It's his first time back since September, when wildfire unleashed itself across these hills and Sanford, trapped in a burning house surrounded by blazing trees, pulled off the narrowest of escapes.

    Capt. Sanford
    AP/Rich Pedroncelli [24K]

    He survived, yes, but he left someone behind.

    ``Every fireman's dream is to save somebody's life,'' he says. ``To fail at that ...''

    He did everything he could, and still the fire won.


    Last year was America's worst for wildfires since Yellowstone burned in 1988. Fires blackened 7.4 million acres of forest and grassland, twice the annual norm, and killed 17 people in 13 states. Officials counted 92,250 separate fires.

    This is the story of one of them, based on interviews with 35 firefighters, survivors and others, and on the findings of a government inquiry released Feb. 8.

    They call it the Concow Incident. Scorching some 1,800 acres in the Sierra Nevada foothills 80 miles north of Sacramento, it was not the year's largest blaze. But it was one of the cruelest, and as things in California often are, it's a sign of what's to come

    Throughout the arid West, civilization is spreading fast across a landscape meant to burn. As mansions and mobile homes sprout amid the pines, firefighters are drawn into a war that grows more dangerous with each victory.

    Cooling off
    AP/Bill Husa [27K]

    Beat back nature often enough, they find, and people who live in wildfire's way come to depend on you. Even when they shouldn't.


    Tuesday's newspapers lie on the brown lawns of Oroville. It is dawn, Sept. 19, 2000, the cloudless start of a sizzling day.

    ``A near-textbook recipe for disaster,'' declares The Mercury-Register's front-page story. ``With temperatures and humidities like those expected today, a passionate look could constitute a fire hazard.''

    Dropping retardant
    AP/Ty Barbour [17K]

    Summer is having one last gasp in Butte County, where the farmland of the Central Valley rises into the dry, forested foothills of the Sierra Nevada and southern Cascades.

    By noon, the thermometer is closing in on 100. Relative humidity is just 15 percent. Sun-baked oak and manzanita leaves rattle on branches, their water content a third of what it was in spring.

    In this weather, the threat of fire is a constant presence, coiled in the weeds, ready to bound free with any spark: a horseshoe striking rock, a tailpipe hanging low, a cigarette butt bouncing off the road.

    For two days, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has declared a Red Flag Warning, urging no use of lawn mowers or other outdoor equipment after 10 a.m.

    But none of this deters Jim Stewart, age 71. Under the noon sun, Stewart sits atop a bulldozer, clearing brush on his property in Concow, a rural, unincorporated community 15 miles north of Oroville.

    Grinding toward his house, Stewart looks back at the gully where he'd been working. Flames crackle in the brush.

    Stewart powers the dozer back toward the fire, but it's too late. Flames are scurrying up the steep ravine toward Concow Road, just above.

    He rushes to the house and calls 911. It is 1:04 p.m.

    A minute later, buzzers and bells are sounding at CDF Fire stations throughout Butte County. From the start, it's a high-level dispatch: six engines, two bulldozers, two air tankers, one helicopter and two on-the-ground fire crews of 15 firefighters each.

    They'll hit this wildfire fast and hard, before it has a chance to spread.

    Battalion Chief Wayne Wilson arrives at 1:20, just behind the first engines, and finds a fire already displaying what he calls ``an aggressive personality.'' Some brush fires fuss and fume, their smoke drifting lazily. This one has a smoke column that billows a thousand feet high.

    It would be hard to design a more troublesome place for a fire to start than this brush-choked ravine. Wildfires love to climb, and the terrain ahead is like a napkin tilted over a candle, rising 700 feet to Miller Peak, a mile to the east.

    Amid the wail of sirens, Wilson calls for reinforcements: 10 more fire engines, two more air tankers, two more bulldozers.

    He also orders six more fire crews with 90 firefighters in all. They are the Marines of the firefighting world, toiling along a fire's flanks to etch out bare-earth corridors with chain saws, shovels and sharp-bladed hand tools called Pulaskis and McClouds.

    Wilson hopes to contain the fire west of Concow Road, but his plan is obsolete as soon as he announces it. Flames are climbing into the tree tops and leaping across the road. In just 45 minutes, the fire has grown to 50 acres.

    Air tankers swoop over the trees, at each pass dropping up to 1,800 gallons of water mixed with fire retardant and red dye. They can slow the fire's spread but not stop it.

    Wilson's new plan: Use fire breaks to confine the blaze to a mile-wide corridor between two east-west roads — Pinkston Canyon Road along the southern edge, Deadwood Road to the north — then try to pinch off its head before it reaches Miller Peak.

    It's a time-tested strategy. You don't stop wildfire so much as herd it, letting it exhaust itself within strips of land cleared of fuel by back fires, bulldozers and hand tools.

    But with this blaze, as with many Western fires these days, there is a complication: protecting dozens of homes tucked amid the trees and brush. Engine crews that once might have tagged along with fire crews, lending their hoses to wet down a fire's flanks, now are ordered into a deadly zone once largely avoided.

    As engines crowd onto narrow Concow Road, Wilson sends them up even narrower dirt roads along the ridge above the blaze. Each crew is to find a house, lay out hoses and wait for the fire to hit.


    2:40 p.m: CDF Fire Capt. Jeff Hawkins and Engineer Tony Brownell back their engines into the driveway of a mobile home off Tim Tam Lane, a gravel road traversing the ridge north of Miller Peak.

    The fire, now covering 150 acres, churns toward them with the muffled roar of distant surf. It is a quarter-mile away and closing fast, blown by a 10-mph westerly wind.

    While two firefighters from each truck lay hoses in the yard, Brownell and Hawkins size up the house. Brush has been cleared back 20 feet from the eaves. The law requires 30, and prudence requires still more.

    Borderline defensible, Brownell and Hawkins agree.

    The old man in the yard tells them he's been here 40 years, and he's not about to leave now. By law, residents cannot be forced to evacuate, and this guy knows it.

    Turn around and look, Brownell tells him.

    Flames are clawing through the brush 200 yards away. Embers sail past. The homeowner, suddenly quiet, hurries his wife and dog into the car, and they roar off down the road.

    Hawkins and Brownell return to their task. They have measured this situation against the cardinal rule of firefighting: No house is worth a life. And they've reached the same conclusion as scores of other firefighters on this ridge today. They will stay.

    The firefighters grab drip torches, metal canisters that dispense burning globs of oil and gasoline, and start laying down fire around the house. Their back fire chews through grass and weeds without leaping into trees above. Perfect, Brownell thinks. By replacing ground-level fuel with a layer of ash, this will slow down the main fire when it hits.

    And just in time. The fire is at hand. Flames sweep through 15-foot-high manzanita brush near the edge of the yard. Smoke hides the sun, and the roar increases from surf to freight train. Sparks and firebrands pelt the men.

    It was already 103 degrees. Now heat billows from the flame front. Sweat and soot stream down bodies encased in long-sleeved Nomex shirts and pants, neck shrouds, goggles, helmets, heavy boots and leather gloves.

    The firefighters move slowly, taking shallow breaths to keep from searing their throats. The four crew members occasionally turn their hose nozzles to the mist position and cool the air over their heads. Brownell and Hawkins, without hoses, crouch low every few seconds to grab a breath of less smoky air near the ground, then straighten up and move on.

    The firefighters aim short bursts of water at burning brush near the house. There's not a drop to waste. Each truck holds 500 gallons, and a hose open full bore would drain the tank in four minutes.

    Flames melt through the home's outside power line. A chicken coop and shed catch fire. But the house itself is clear of flame. And the fire front, though nastier than Hawkins and Brownell would prefer, is passing by.

    Things are going well, Hawkins thinks. Then he looks back — his engine is on fire! His crew rushes over, dousing the truck with its own hose, but not before plastic light covers melt.

    And now the fire is making another run at them from a different angle. This is getting hairy, Hawkins thinks. They need help, fast.

    He radios for air support, and within minutes hears the roar of an air tanker. He never sees the plane, but through clouds of smoke a red rain plummets. The soupy fire retardant smacks Hawkins, the house and the engine. A direct hit.

    ``Thank you!'' Hawkins shouts to the sky.


    The worst has passed for Hawkins, but it's only beginning for Brownell and his crew. Worried that the wildfire will ambush them from a ridge to the south, they walk east along Tim Tam Lane, laying down fire along the road's southern edge to burn out a safety zone.

    Brownell, a brawny 6-feet-2, has fought wildfires for 12 years. He's known to colleagues as an aggressive firefighter, a quality that earns respect in the field but makes safety officers nervous. His two crew members are greener, but Brownell considers them sharp. Scott Martinez, 25, has been with CDF Fire for four years. Eric Zane, 21, is in his second season.

    Their burn-out starts well, but 400 feet up the road, Brownell senses change. In roadside brush he'd thought was clear, two spot fires are bubbling. And their back fire, until now simmering through the underbrush, is getting lively. Roadside pine trees ignite like torches.

    Let's get out of here, Brownell says. They drop their drip torches and start walking briskly back toward the engines.

    Seconds later, their back fire leaps 40 feet into the sky. A wall of flame curls over them to become a fiery ceiling. Brownell looks one way up the road and then the other. It's orange both ways. There's nowhere to go.

    ``Deploy! Deploy! Deploy!'' Brownell shouts, dropping to his butt.

    All three men reach for their fire shelters, aluminum and fiberglass blankets that firefighters call Shake 'N Bakes. Carried on the belt, they are tools of last resort, like the seat-cushion life preservers on an airliner. If you even start thinking you need one, you're in deep trouble.

    Firefighters train until they can remove a shelter from its 3-by-5-by-9-inch box, rip off its plastic wrapper, unfold it and spread it over themselves in 30 seconds.

    Brownell figures they have 10 seconds before they start to fry.

    Adrenaline surging, Brownell quells the urge to panic. In tight situations, you fall back on your training: Yank shelter out. Rip plastic off.

    Side by side, Brownell and Zane execute each step in sync. They're on their backs, kicking open the accordion folds of their shelters, when they hear shouts from Martinez, a few feet behind them.

    ``I can't get it out!''

    Martinez has trained for shelter deployments. But that was on green grass. He has never seen a fire this close, this hot. It's like being in an oven, with the door about to close.

    His mind races. Take his gloves off? His hands will burn. Run? The fire is everywhere. Share a shelter with Zane or Brownell? He'd just read a book about a Colorado fire in which two men died trying to share one shelter.

    He keeps fumbling. There. The shelter's out of the box. But now he can't get the plastic off. The heat is unbearable. Brownell and Zane yell at him to hurry.

    ``I can't get it out of my plastic!''

    Brownell hears a change in Martinez' voice, from frustration to terror. Without a word, he shuffles over and stretches his own shelter over Martinez.

    Now he has Martinez' head in his lap, but the younger firefighter's legs are sticking out into the heat. Zane, spying the exposed legs, moves closer and shields them with his shelter.

    Three big men. Two small shelters. This is not by the book. They should be on their bellies, faces in the dirt, hands and feet holding straps at each corner of each shelter to keep it firmly against the ground.

    Instead, Brownell is sitting up, leaving a one-foot gap between the road and the edge of his shelter. Zane is on his back, his shelter riding up along the rear of his helmet.

    All around them, the fire howls. Hot blasts of wind rattle the flimsy shelters, threatening to yank them from the men's hands. It's getting hard to breathe. Brownell can tell which way the wind is blowing by sparks flying past him under the shelter. He sees a tongue of flame lick in under one edge.

    Then his left leg, pressed against superheated stone in the gravel road, begins to burn.

    TOMORROW: Chaos in the hills.

    EDITOR'S NOTE — David Foster is the AP's Northwest regional writer, based in Seattle.


    • #3

      Part 2: Chaos in the Hills

      Associated Press Writer

      CDF firefighters
      AP/Rich Pedroncelli [33K]

      EDITOR'S NOTE — This is Part 2 of a five-day serial portraying courage in wildfire's way.

      CONCOW, Calif. (AP) — Over the roar of the fire, Engineer Tony Brownell is shouting into his radio: ``Task Force 2, emergency traffic! We're being burned over!''

      More than a thousand firefighters have descended on this corner of the Sierra foothills, using bulldozers, shovels, fire engines and air tankers to battle a blaze now grown to 200 acres.

      Radio chatter has been constant all afternoon. Now the air waves fall silent. Everyone listens. Many are friends with Brownell and the two firefighters huddling under aluminum fire shelters with him, Eric Zane and Scott Martinez.

      Brownell knows that every air tanker and helicopter on the fire is at his disposal — if only the pilots can find him. Again and again, Brownell describes his position. Aircraft bank overhead, but there's too much smoke to see. They drop three loads of water, but each misses the mark.

      Brownell, Zane and Martinez are on their own.

      Awaiting deployment
      AP/Bob Galbraith [27K]

      For what seems to them an eternity — 15 minutes? 20? — searing gusts of wind buffet their shelters. With only a thin layer of reflective material shielding them, the three men squeeze under two small shelters and keep talking to fend off panic, their voices raised above the tumult.

      Exhausting its fuel, the fire gradually eases, and the men shift into better positions. Martinez unfolds his own shelter and takes single refuge. Brownell, sitting up until now, turns over, though the road is so hot he stays on hands and knees.

      But the fire isn't done. Lunging into brush across the road, it flares up and pins them down once more.

      Five minutes later, the fire is finally spent, and the men peer out. Where brush once grew so heavy you couldn't see 20 feet, now bare and blackened sticks jut from smoking earth.

      The firefighters rise dizzily and stagger down the road, wearing their shelters like tortoise shells. Capt. Jeff Hawkins sees them coming, ghosts through the smoke. They look scared to death, he thinks, nothing but big, white eyes.

      Brownell has first-degree burns on his left leg. Martinez is weak, disoriented and so dehydrated there's barely any sweat left in him. Zane's left arm has second-degree burns from an ember that lodged between sleeve and skin.

      Hawkins' crew offers them hits of oxygen and bottled water. But they can't stay here. The fire is heating up again, so both crews gun their trucks down the burned-over road, away from the fire front.

      Brownell is not a man given to overstatement. He usually scoffs at talk of fire in human terms, as if it were alive. It's a natural process, Brownell has always said, and we just happen to be in the way.

      Now he's not so sure.

      ``This fire,'' he tells himself, ``is trying to kill somebody.''


      Less than a mile to the south, at the corner of Nelson Bar Road and Stagecoach Lane, three neighbors squint into the sky. Air tankers roar over the trees on their way north toward the fire.

      It's more bad news for Ray McCarty, 74, a welder who retired here eight years ago thinking he'd found paradise: a mobile home with space out back for his hunting hounds. But life's been harder since his wife died of cancer last year, and now this wildfire is making him nervous.

      Beverly Brooks, 67, McCarty's landlady across the pasture, is even more upset. Country life doesn't suit her. She came back to tend her ailing mother, who died in 1992, and never got around to leaving. She likes her neighbors, loves her Chihuahuas, but chafes at the rural isolation. And wildfires like this, she says, scare the wits out of her.

      You should be scared, Norm Williams tells her. Short and balding with a tuft of white chin whiskers, the retired log-truck driver was raised on a ranch across Nelson Bar Road from the Brooks place. At 74, he's loaded with opinions, and he's not afraid to share them.

      This country was safer from fire before the government started meddling, he says. Used to be, ranchers burned the timberlands to make for better grazing, and cattle chewed down the dry grass. Not anymore.

      ``They won't let you burn in the wintertime when you should be burning,'' Williams says. ``They claim the ozone and all that horse dootsie.''

      And now these firefighters don't seem to fathom what any old-timer knows. After sunset this time of year, a northeast wind starts blowing off Miller Peak — opposite the way the afternoon wind is pushing the wildfire now.

      Williams mentions this to a couple of firefighters. They nod and say they're taking the winds into consideration, leaving Williams to sputter to his neighbors.

      ``Beverly, you better take off and go down to Oroville or somewhere. We're liable to have fire before the night's over.''

      By evening, however, it appears they have little to fear.

      The afternoon has been hellish for the firefighters. Two collapsed from heat exhaustion. One was hit by a falling tree. But they've done their job. Fire damaged two homes, but firefighters saved a dozen others.

      The westerly wind has disappeared now, and the day's intense heat is fading. At 8:45 p.m., an upbeat press release predicts that the 800-acre blaze, with fire breaks now completed around half its perimeter, will be fully contained by morning.

      ``This fire is over,'' says Capt. Darryl Sanford, relaxing by his engine. He even has time to grab his cell phone and call his wife, just to say hello.

      Fifteen minutes later, the wind begins to blow again.


      Lightly at first, then steadily stronger, the hot, dry breeze presses in from the northeast. Against the black hillside, the red line of fire glows brighter. Embers fly.

      Old Norm Williams was right. The fire is turning on its tail.

      Around 10 p.m., Battalion Chief Wayne Wilson halts back-fire operations along the fire's southern edge after they start spreading in the wrong direction, to the south.

      Firefighters douse those errant blazes, and bulldozers and crews wielding hand tools redouble efforts to gouge out a fire break ahead of the wildfire's suddenly active southwestern boundary.

      By 12:30 a.m., however, a 15-mph wind is driving flames through a half-mile gap in the fire break and down the hill toward Concow Road, just a quarter-mile from where the fire started 12 hours earlier.

      Wilson watches from Concow Road, waiting for the fire to hit. Then he turns around and sees that it already has. Wind-thrown firebrands have ignited at least 20 spot fires in the grass around a barn behind him.

      An engine crew starts spraying, but they can't put out all the spot fires. Flames soon swarm around the barn, flying up walls and into the eaves. In a few minutes, the building is ablaze, and the crew retreats.

      Southwest of Concow Road, along Nelson Bar Road, both the brush and houses are thicker than up on the ridge. As residents pile into cars and race away, engine crews race in. They dash from driveway to driveway, deciding which houses to defend and which to write off.

      The wind increases to 20 mph, and flames blast into the woods ahead. In minutes, the fire explodes into a firestorm, a term for which no precise definition exists, Wilson says. You just know it when you see it, and he's seeing it now.

      Fire looms above the treetops and crashes through the brush, everywhere at once. It pounces upon parked cars, leaving empty shells. It flings itself against roofs and walls, devouring whole houses in minutes. Gasoline cans boom inside garages. Windows melt to green globs amid the ash.

      Some houses survive while neighbors' go up in smoke. A house on Nelson Bar Road falls to smoldering rubble, yet a few feet away its white picket fence is not even singed.

      The fire takes Arthur Strain's house, painstakingly built with lumber milled from a single huge fir. But it spares the mobile home of Roy Clayton, who frantically sprays down his yard with a garden hose until his pumphouse burns down.

      Just ahead, over the next hill on Stagecoach Lane, all is quiet.

      Ray McCarty, Beverly Brooks and Norm Williams had watched the news a few hours before. They'd talked to friends and firefighters, and everyone had agreed: The fire was going the other way.

      And so they'd gone to bed.

      TOMORROW: Showdown at Stagecoach Lane.

      EDITOR'S NOTE — David Foster is AP's Northwest Regional Writer, based in Seattle.


      • #4
        Part 3: Showdown on Stagecoach Lane

        Associated Press Writer

        EDITOR'S NOTE— This is Part 3 of a five-day serial portraying courage in wildfire's way.

        A firefighter surveys the blaze
        Associated Press/Tom Parker [21K]

        CONCOW, Calif. (AP) — It is 2 a.m., and someone is banging on Ray McCarty's doublewide mobile home. Rousing himself from bed, he finds a firefighter at his door.

        The wind has changed, Capt. Darryl Sanford tells McCarty and his son, Richard. The wildfire that more than 1,000 firefighters have battled all day is heading this way.

        Better pack a few things and be ready to leave, Sanford says. Then he points south, toward a house across the pasture. Anyone at home over there? he asks.

        ``That's my landlady, Beverly Brooks,'' McCarty replies and volunteers to alert her.

        Norm Williams and his dog
        Associated Press/Rich Pedroncelli [35K]

        As Sanford's truck rumbles away, McCarty tries the telephone. It's dead. He drives his pickup over to Brooks' house, where he bangs on the door and calls her name. No answer, except for the yapping Chihuahuas.

        He peers in through the screen door. A living room lamp throws light down the hallway to the right. McCarty can see Brooks lying on her bed in a room at the end of the hall.

        ``Beverly? Beverly!''

        She stirs but doesn't awaken, and McCarty decides to let the poor woman be. He'd visited with her a few hours ago, calming her fears by repeating what everyone else was saying: The fire was heading away from them, toward the northeast.

        Let her sleep, McCarty figures. If the fire gets close, he'll come back. There will be time enough. He heads home, grabs the garden hose and starts wetting down brush around the yard.

        Parked on Stagecoach Lane near McCarty's house, Capt. Jeff Hawkins keeps watch with his two firefighters, Joe Saunders and Paul Carlos.

        Behind the hill to the north, wildfire is ripping across the countryside, devouring houses, trees, cars, telephone poles.

        But here, things are calm. Stars are sparkling. There's no smoke, nor even an orange glow, over the wooded ridge.

        To Hawkins, the 40-acre pasture between Brooks' and McCarty's homes seems much safer than the manzanita thickets he's seen all day. The field is full of star thistle, 3 feet high and as dry as hay. It burns like gasoline, but any firefighter prefers it to the sustained fire you get in dense brush and timber.

        McCarty's mobile home, on the other hand, is tucked back into higher brush and brambles at the pasture's northern edge. Junk is scattered about the yard.

        Hawkins sees this kind of thing all the time. People move to the country and want to live amid the trees, not out in the open. They bring their toys, then build sheds and garages to hold everything, but there's never enough room, so yards fill with boats, kennels, old cars and stacks of lumber.

        Such clutter is maddening to firefighters, trained to view the world in terms of its potential to burn. They lump all houses into two simple categories: losers and keepers.

        Is brush cleared at least 30 feet out from the house? Are gutters clean of leaves? Is the yard free of flammable junk and firewood? Are the walls and roof made of fire-resistant materials? If so, the house may be a keeper.

        As for McCarty's house — a definite loser, Hawkins thinks.

        ``If this thing goes, we're not setting up here,'' he tells his firefighters. ``It would be nothing but trouble.''

        Around 2:20 a.m., the stars begin to vanish.

        Smoke is curling over the ridge. Glowing embers sail out of the darkness and land in the star thistle. At first, the weeds don't ignite, and Hawkins sighs in relief.

        Now comes a gust of wind, another volley of firebrands. They land like tiny bombs, and this time the thistle catches fire.

        ``OK, boys, we're going to work,'' Hawkins says.

        Already facing out toward Nelson Bar Road, Hawkins drives the engine 50 yards forward, to the edge of a spot fire. In the minute it takes his firefighters to charge the hose and start spraying, the fire has spread too much to stop. Other spot fires are breaking out all over the pasture.

        Hawkins pulls up a few yards, hoses dragging behind the engine, but the fire quickly catches up to them.

        ``Cut the hoses and get in,'' Hawkins shouts. Saunders and Carlos pile in, and Hawkins speeds the truck along Stagecoach Lane, away from McCarty's house and toward Nelson Bar Road. In his rearview mirrors, Hawkins sees only orange.

        They pull ahead of the fire and look back toward the mobile home. Flames are licking at the house. Brush is burning along both sides of Stagecoach Lane, and McCarty and his son are running around the front yard, trying to get a half-dozen dogs into two trucks.

        ``They're in it, deep,'' Hawkins thinks. He knows what he has to do, but he polls his firefighters anyway: Should we get them?

        Absolutely, both reply.

        The engine roars back up McCarty's drive, plunging into a cloud of choking smoke. As Hawkins turns the engine around, Carlos and Saunders get out to retrieve the McCartys.

        Hawkins is not one for macho pretense. He figures any firefighter who claims never to get scared is either crazy or a liar. Fear sharpens the senses. But now, with will-I-ever-see-my-wife-again thoughts running through his mind, Hawkins is edging toward the line that separates healthy fear from mindless panic.

        It appears McCarty and his son have already crossed it. They're still trying to round up their hunting hounds, and not making much progress. Flames swirl around the fire engine, and Hawkins can't sit still. He twists in the driver's seat and yells out the window.

        ``Get them in here! We gotta go!''

        The McCartys resist. With most of their dogs now in the pickups, they want to drive out themselves. But Hawkins is adamant: It's too late for that. All sweat and smoke, father and son tumble into the fire engine's cab, carrying one favored hound named Bones.

        The doors slam shut and Hawkins hits the accelerator. Behind him, Ray and Richard McCarty sit silently, staring out at flames churning up from the blackberries.

        With the windows closed, they hear no more of the fire outside: not the roar of the flames, not the crackling brambles, not the desperate howls of the dogs left behind.


        Norm Williams jolts awake. Someone's pounding on the wall of his mobile home.

        ``Your house is on fire!'' he hears a voice shouting.

        ``Then put the son of a bitch out!'' he yells back.

        He and Lesta spring out of bed, make it to the door. Williams shakes. His wife begins to cry.

        That fool firefighter got it wrong, Williams thinks. The house isn't on fire — the world is. Flames are in the woods across Nelson Bar Road, right up to the pavement.

        ``Listen,'' Williams says. ``What we gotta do is keep our heads on our shoulders.''

        They're in good shape to make it out of this, he figures. Fire trucks line the road. And the Williamses know the tricks of surviving in wildfire country. They water their lawn, mow weeds in the field and trim branches on trees near the house, which has metal siding and a fire-resistant composition roof.

        Williams tells his wife to get the family photos and financial records she'd gathered up earlier and throw them in the truck. He'll get the motor home out of his workshop.

        Outside the shop, he finds firefighters standing by three trucks.

        ``Why in the hell aren't you trying to put out the fire?'' he demands.

        ``We don't use water out of the tankers until it hits a structure,'' one replies.

        Williams says he's got water and grabs a garden hose.

        ``Don't do that, you'll have a heart attack,'' a firefighter says.

        ``I been here 74 years,'' Williams says. ``If I have a heart attack, it's my heart. If you guys are so goddamn afraid you're going to burn to death, there's a faucet at the end of that building and one here, right by you. Turn the goddamn water on and keep cool, or whatever the hell you want to do, since you're not going to do nothing else, I guess.''

        He strides away — and there, standing dazed in the road, is Ray McCarty.

        ``Norm, they wouldn't let me get my dogs out,'' McCarty says. ``My pickup's burned up. Everything's gone.''

        Gone? Williams suddenly remembers his other neighbor on Stagecoach Lane.

        Beverly. Where's Beverly?

        The two men look across the street, through the trees. Beverly Brooks' house is wrapped in flame.


        • #5
          Part 4: Thirty Seconds Too Late

          CONCOW, Calif. (AP) — The life of the party, her friends call her. A drama queen, her sister says.

          At 67, Beverly Brooks is slowing down — blame the emphysema and extra pounds — but she still possesses an intensity that seems outsized for a woman just 4-feet-11.

          She gets obsessed with things. While others collect antiques, Brooks piles up boxes of them floor to ceiling, leaving paths for herself and her Chihuahuas: Jesse, Lola, Rita, Lillie and Juanita.

          Beverly Brooks
          AP Photo, courtesy of Barry Brooks/ [14K]

          While others in these dry Sierra foothills worry about wildfire, Brooks has apocalyptic visions. One day, watching the John Wayne movie ``The Searchers,'' she shrieked to see a frontier family's cabin set afire by Indians.

          ``Oh, my God! That's my horrible fear!'' Brooks told her friend, Pamela Kappesser. ``I can't watch that. I'm going to die in a fire someday.''

          A drama queen. If she really believed it, wouldn't she keep the weeds in her pasture mowed? Wouldn't she have someone clear the brush behind her house?

          Friends nag her about those things.

          You're right, Brooks says, I'll get to it.


          It's 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, and 84 degrees. Beverly Brooks awakens to an orange glow outside, like sunrise.

          At the front door looms a man dressed for battle: helmet, goggles, gloves, neck shroud, soot-stained yellow pants and shirt.

          Brooks, in a cotton nightgown and slippers, peers around him, her eyes widening. The pasture is a sea of flame. In the distance, Ray McCarty's house is a bonfire.

          She'd gone to bed hours ago, assured by friends that she was safe from the wildfire raging since Tuesday afternoon across the Sierra foothills. They'd told her the fire was blowing to the northeast, away from her.

          ``Please stay inside, ma'am,'' the firefighter says. ``We're going to do our best to save your house.''

          This is Capt. Darryl Sanford, a 27-year veteran with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. A tidy mustache and hair parted in the middle give him an old-fashioned, barbershop-quartet look. Friends know him as pleasant, unassuming. But on a fire, colleagues see another Sanford: intense, focused, the guy you want by your side when all hell breaks loose.

          He and his firefighter, Will Krings, barely made it up here. Minutes earlier, they'd watched from their engine as flames from the thistle-choked pasture sheeted across Brooks' 300-foot driveway.

          They'll never get through, Sanford thought. Then he noticed a pattern. When the wind blew hard, 15-foot flames leaned over the driveway. When it eased, the flames would straighten up and shrink down for a few seconds.

          The fire was breathing.

          On its next inhale, Sanford punched the accelerator, and the truck bounced up the hill, flames licking the sides.

          Now the men walk around the three-bedroom ranch, sizing it up.

          The roof is metal and the lawn is mowed. Good. A half-dozen trees surround the house, including an enormous oak out front. Not good, but at least no branches hang lower than 15 feet.

          The fire will race across the unwatered lawn, Sanford knows, but if they can keep it from jumping into the trees, they probably can save this house.

          Krings heads left, around the garage. Sanford goes right, past the front door. The wildfire is pressing close, from both the pasture in front and a brushy draw to the left.

          Hosing down some burning brush, Sanford gets his first hint that protecting this house won't be a snap. As flames leap up into oily leaves overhead, he realizes this tree, and some of the others, are live oaks, which burn like kerosene-soaked torches.

          He twists the nozzle to a straight stream and knocks the fire out of the tree, then walks around behind the house to see Krings having his own problems at the other end.

          The strengthening wind is fanning flames up from the brush and into the trees. Krings opens his nozzle full bore, but the jet of water reaches just 10 feet before being knocked back by the wind.

          And now Sanford sees something he's never seen in 27 years. Flying sparks are normal in a wind-driven fire. But what's shooting down from these trees is more like rain — liquid fire, pelting the house.

          We may lose this one, Sanford thinks, hurrying back around the house to join Krings at the truck.

          Stay or go? Sanford sees his answer through the breezeway. The back of the garage has started to burn. His engine's 500-gallon water tank, full when they arrived a few minutes ago, has less than 100 gallons left, not enough if the garage catches on in earnest.

          It's time to abandon this house.

          ``Shut down the pump. Disconnect the lines,'' he tells Krings. ``I'm grabbing the lady. We're taking her with us.''

          Without knocking, Sanford strides into the living room.

          ``Ma'am, I'm sorry. I can't save your house. You've got to come with me.''

          Brooks recoils.

          ``No! What do you mean?''

          ``You've got to come with me. I can't save your house.''

          ``No! My dogs!''

          ``We've got to go, now.''

          Brooks kneels by a coffee table and picks up one of the three Chihuahuas skittering underfoot. Sanford grabs the dog from her hand. She picks up another, and he takes that one, too.

          ``WE GOTTA GO. NOW!''

          ``I can't leave without Juanita!'' she cries. The third dog bolts under another table, and Sanford brusquely flips the table over.

          Then he glances toward the back. There's fire in the kitchen.

          Brooks must see it, too.

          ``OK. Let's go,'' she says, standing up.

          Outside, Krings is glad to see them come out the front door. In the two minutes since Sanford went inside, Krings has shut down the pump and uncoupled the hoses — and now the garage is fully ablaze.

          Krings heads up the walkway. He's within 15 feet of Brooks when a 30-mph blast of wind and flame shoots through the breezeway.

          Thirty seconds earlier, they would have made it out easily. Now they're caught in a blowtorch. The air fills with flame. Grass ignites. Krings dives over a fence and crawls toward the engine.

          Brooks, terrified, darts around Sanford and back into the house.

          Sanford turns and follows her, two dogs tucked under his arm.

          There's no time for him to explain that getting burned while dashing to safety is better than being incinerated inside. No time to argue against her panicked instinct: The world outside is burning, so I'll stay here.

          There's time only for urgent instructions.

          ``We've got to get out of here now,'' he says. ``Get right behind me. I'll block the flame.''

          They try again, with Brooks at Sanford's heels.

          They make it onto the porch, and the wind gusts again, stronger than before. Flame swirls around them. Radiant heat pulses down from the tree above. One terrified dog twists from Sanford's grasp, and as he bends to pick it up, he sees Brooks hurrying back inside.

          Once more he follows, this time closing the door to keep the flames at bay.

          They're in the living room now. The power has gone out, but there's plenty of light. The kitchen is filled with fire. Glass is popping, timbers are cracking. Overhead, Sanford hears the roar of fire in the attic. Above boxes stacked in the living room, he sees flames rolling across the ceiling.

          Normally, a firefighter in a burning house would have a water hose, air pack and insulated clothing. Sanford wears only his wildland gear: thin Nomex shirt and pants, helmet, gloves. Brooks, in her nightgown, is even worse off.

          ``We gotta go out a window!'' Sanford yells. A dark hallway lies to the right. Maybe it leads to a way out.

          But Brooks is paralyzed by fear. Sanford drops the dogs and starts pushing her down the hall. She moves slowly, gasping for breath.

          Sanford can hear Krings shouting outside, but he may as well be miles away. The truck's hoses are disconnected, and no other engine can make it up the flaming driveway.

          The hallway is heating up. Smoke is pooling overhead. As Sanford pulls a dust mask over his mouth, a stray thought stops him in his tracks: A few hours ago, during a lull in the fire, he did something he never does. He called home, just to chat with his wife.

          Now he understands why. It was his chance to say goodbye.


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