A Thin Cloak of Survival

The Los Angeles Times is publishing a series of stories, portraits actually, on people who survived the wildfires.  I thought I would share a few with you.

October 28, 2007

They had drilled on this situation dozens of times, and if anyone remembered the training, it was rookie firefighter Jason Carl. Ninety-two days out of the Orange County fire academy, on a smoky slope in Santiago Canyon, Carl was reaching for the one thing he’d been told he should never need: the flimsy emergency shelters known as shake-n-bakes.

He tore the small package open, unfurling the foil shelter in the scorching wind. He stepped on its edge, curled it around his back like a shroud and dropped to the ground.

For nearly 20 minutes, he sucked short breaths of air from beneath the fire-retardant shelter, his arms and legs splayed wide to seal its edges to the ground.

Carl, 26, of Huntington Beach, was among a dozen Orange County firefighters trapped Monday by a wall of flame on a steep bank off Santiago Canyon Road. Behind them, their canvas hoses lay burned and useless.

The firefighters had been ordered onto the hill, on the north side of the road, to extinguish spot fires spilling over from the south side. If the Santiago fire jumped the road, it could barrel toward an elementary school and hundreds of homes, then roar through the tinder-dry Cleveland National Forest into Riverside County.

They laid hose up the hill, but when they opened the nozzle, no water shot out. While they tried to connect new hoses, a wave of flames leaped the road and came up behind them.

Carl said his captain, Doug Dodge of Placentia Station 34, called them together and ordered them to try to hack out an escape route. They were standing in a fairly large area that had burned, and it just might work.

It didn’t. The flames were moving too fast. The captain called the firefighters together again and ordered them to deploy the shelters. The foil pockets mushroomed, and down they fell.
"I didn’t really feel it was life-threatening," Carl said. "We trained on it so much."

But down on the ground, he realized that "this was a little different."

As the heat grew more intense, "I kept telling myself, ‘This is like being inside a sauna,’ " he said.

Carl couldn’t recall whether the flames passed directly over him or to the side. He does remember blessedly cool drops of water trickling under the lip of the shelter after helicopters dumped two loads of water on the stranded men.

Dodge and a second captain kept them calm, Carl said.

"Once we deployed, we were in the shelters talking to each other, and they were talking to the chief down on the road below us on the radio the whole time," he said. "We just kept doing roll call, making sure everybody was there and everybody was OK."

Finally, Carl heard the chief on the radio call "all clear" to his captains, who instantly relayed the message.

They whipped off the shelters and walked down the hill. "The adrenaline was still pumping," Carl said. After a quick medical evaluation, they were released for the night. Tuesday morning, Carl was back on duty.

A fellow firefighter showed him a Los Angeles Times photograph of his crew shrouded against the flames. Carl recognized himself as the third silhouette from the right.

"It really helped give me some perspective. When you’re in the shelter, you don’t have any idea what’s going on outside. . . . It showed me where the flames really were."

Carl went back to the scene the next day. The crumpled shelters lay like muffin wrappers on the blackened earth.


Went to 7 -11 today and there was a sign on the door!!  ‘Please take your smoke mask off before entering’!
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22 Responses to A Thin Cloak of Survival

  1. Jude says:

    That……was the most intense story I’ve read in a long time.I’m glad they got out safe 🙂

  2. Shannon says:

    I completely concur with Hey_Jude
    I am floored.

  3. Lena says:

    Wow, I caught myself catching my breath during that read.  Hopefully all the firefighters will be as blessed as Carl and his crew.
    Are you all safe now? 

  4. Cindy says:

    Hello Bob,
    That story was intense….
    I know this time has been hard on you, you have SUCH a good soft heart!
    Again I will say I am so glad you and your family are safe, but my heart goes out to those that have lost so much.

  5. R U Serious says:

    It has been so brutal here!  At first I thought I could handle it, but there has been so much pain and loss!  Between the loss of homes and the injuries to our firefighters, it’s almost too much to bear!  Driving the freeways and looking up to the hills??  There is literally NOTHING left!!  Oh, I’m sure that the trees and shubbery will grow back in time, but many people’s lives and futures won’t!!  Many of us survived and did not lose anything, but we here in So Cal are a family and when one hurts, we all feel the pain! My heart has been breaking, piece by piece!!

  6. Louise says:

    Hi Bob (((BIG HUGS))) you got me with this one too. It’s awful what has happened and I am so sorry you have had to go through this. I’m sure right now it looks hopeless for some people but as you say you are a community, something that is lost in our country. It will take some time to heal Bob and to repair the damage but the human spirit is one of the strongest things and by pulling together with the people around you I’m sure you will rebuild things and make life good again. If everyone reaches out a hand in friendship and pull together the job will be done so much quicker and yes it will take a long time but it will happen so don’t give up hope, think about what you can do even the smallest things to help people less fortunate.
    Keep your chin up Bob and be strong, something I know you can do. I’ll try and catch up with you soon my friend.
    (((BIG HUGS))) and loads of bright blessings xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

  7. Isabelle says:

    Hi Bob!
    That was an intense story indeed!!
    These guys were so lucky and their captain… a good one!!
    OMG I have the chill just thinking of that fire passing by and devasting everything even lives…. so sad.
    Well at least you and your family are safe and sound!!!! I think that really makes us feel relieved to know you were not directly affected by the fires… but still I understand your pain thinking of the people, flora and fauna that perished in these unhearted fires…. those firefighters should be blessed for they are doing a remarkable job and risk their lives day after day!
    Well, Bob I think it’s a test as usual…. now we will all witness how people can be good to each other. They will forget fights and greediness. They will all stand up to share and rebuild.
    It always takes a catastrophe to strengthen the community…..
    Thank you so much for the song!!!
    Big Hugs,

  8. Kat says:

    wow. That story gave me chills. I hear about the devistation. I see the images of loss on my TV. I read and feel your anguish as you witness it first hand…and yet I know I do not aptly have a full grasp on the absolute full horror of it all.  My heart goes out to all you in California. I was born in San Bernardino. My Mom lives in Riverside. My heart is with you.
    *big hugs, Bob-a-roo. Big hugs.*

  9. Kat says:

    wow. That story gave me chills. I hear about the devistation. I see the images of loss on my TV. I read and feel your anguish as you witness it first hand…and yet I know I do not aptly have a full grasp on the absolute full horror of it all.  My heart goes out to all you in California. I was born in San Bernardino. My Mom lives in Riverside. My heart is with you.
    *big hugs, Bob-a-roo. Big hugs.*

  10. Kat says:

    wow. That story gave me chills. I hear about the devistation. I see the images of loss on my TV. I read and feel your anguish as you witness it first hand…and yet I know I do not aptly have a full grasp on the absolute full horror of it all.  My heart goes out to all you in California. I was born in San Bernardino. My Mom lives in Riverside. My heart is with you.
    *big hugs, Bob-a-roo. Big hugs.*

  11. Laoch says:

    Very moving

  12. ZePp... says:

    I been meaning to come by n see how the fires have been treating you, well you and a friend of mine. She lives futher north in Newhall, still havent heard from her :S
    Looks like u survived.. hope the cabin n all is safe now !!!!
    Having major issues with my home puter system so can only get on here at work…shhhhhhh  dont tell the bosses !!!! 
    Hope u have a great week ahead Bob !!!

  13. Angie says:

    ****Big Breath****
    Holy Moly!
    am I allowed to be speechless today???? I can’t imagine the intensity of this situation. My good friends son does this for a "living". We worry about him when he is gone. I’m not one of these brave men for sure! I’d whimp out in about 3 seconds flat.

  14. CAROL says:

    SO SO glad they are okay.. we just have no idea the heart and soul and courage it takes to be a firefighter and run INTO THE FIRE and not away from it..  Take care of you.. Prayers for those who are still at it!  : )

  15. KatSoup says:

    That is what you call a civil servant, cuz you can’t pay enough for that to be a job. 
    My woodland hills friend put up 4 realitives that were evacuated.  She guesses they didnt answer the other line when i tried to get through.  thanks for letting me know.  I heard it from you before i talked to her.  I am so glad that you and yours were spared.  That was too close for comfort though.

  16. Stephanie says:

    Those men are amazing. Not only to be willing to go through that, but, to turn around and go back to work after being through something like that.
    I admire them greatly!
    Dek went home, and now it seems so quiet. Talk to you soon. BIG HUGS, Steph

  17. Steve says:

    Thanks.  These stories need to be collected and put into a book or something.  Peace J

  18. Lena says:

    *raises hand*
    why does the smoke mask need to be removed before entering the store?  Why not remove it once you step into the smoke-free environment?  Is this so that big brother up in the security camera can see who is coming and going?  I’m not being a smart ass, I’m genuinely curious.
    Hugs and positive juju being sent your way!

  19. Jude says:

    I’ve gone back to the Dark Side already  😉  lol
    Hope you’re doing well.  Take care and talk soon 🙂

  20. Seth says:

    Despite their skills and weight of numbers, the difficulty and scale of the firefighters’ task are often directed by the random factor of the weather.  The most damaging fires occur in hot, dry and windy conditions – exactly those that had been experienced in California.  Gusty winds can cause large fires to "leap" across fire breaks, undermining the work of the fire crews. 
    The emergency shelter is a aluminum-coated mylar sheet.  The shelter is a lightweight pup tent enclosed in a small pouch that wildland firefighters can use as a last-resort cocoon in a life-threatening predicament if they are overtaken by a fast moving fire.  The fire shelter reflects radiant heat, reducing a deadly 1,000-degree fire to a survivable 120 degrees, and provides a temporary pocket of breathable air in a fire-entrapment situation.This emergency shelter ("Shake ‘n’ Bake bag") will hopefully provide enough protection from radiant heat to allow the fire to pass over the firefighters without killing them. Considered as last-resort protection, if shelters have to be deployed it means that things have gone very, very wrong. 
    Many firefighters who have deployed fire shelters in emergency situations say they would not have survived without them.   This article proves just that.
    Thanks again for sharing this Bob….  Seth!

  21. Seth says:

    …. good to hear you are safe.  It is ominous, the fires all happening at once.  No doubt that the ash, wind and heat are simply too much to take. I can’t imagine what families are going through right now.  Funny how we see the news and think of people we have never met.
    Stay Safe… keep well.

  22. Louise says:

    Happy Halloween Bob! I hope you’re ok and doing what you do best, hope you’re keeping that chin up high and that mate of mine happy lol.
    (((BIG HUGS))) and loads and loads of bright blessings xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

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