October 28, 2007
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.