When angry winds whipped up the fire late Wednesday afternoon, Capt. Ron Topolinski and Firefighter Robert Lopez were on Spyglass Ridge Road trying to protect homes in the hills above Santa Barbara.
"All of the sudden, the area ignited very rapidly," Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper said. "You can never outguess Mother Nature and which way the wind will take a fire."
One collapsed on the driveway, the other near the fire engine now blackened by fire.
Capt. Brian Bulger, 57, spotted them as he drove his Chevrolet Suburban. Bulger was not wearing breathing protection, but left his SUV to rescue his crew, inhaling the hot, smoky air.
The three were airlifted to Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks, where they told doctors their story.
Lopez suffered second- and third-degree burns to about 15% of his body, on his ears, neck, back, arms and hands. Topolinski was burned on his face, ears, hands and arms, roughly 10% of his body. All three were in good condition.
"You realize how close you came in your brush with death. There’s relief, anxiety, joy, guilt. It’s really hard," said the center’s co-medical director, Dr. Peter Grossman. "The term hero gets thrown around so cavalierly these days. But these are truly men and women of courage."
The three were among 11 firefighters injured, a number fire experts said was unusually high and reflected the severe conditions facing fire crews.
Bulger probably will be released today. Lopez and Topolinski will stay for a couple more weeks. Both are scheduled for surgery today, with a follow-up a few days later if skin grafts are deemed necessary.
Lopez will undergo treatment twice a day in a hyperbaric chamber where 100% oxygen under high pressure should help decrease swelling, Grossman said.
During the surgeries, doctors will remove burned skin, said Dr. Richard Grossman, the burn center’s founder.
Meanwhile, investigators will interview the firefighters to determine whether they made the right decisions.
Although the questions haven’t all been answered yet, Roper said the proof is in Sherman Oaks, where the firefighters were laughing and visiting with their families.
It isn’t that large of a fire, as far as acreage, but it has certainly been devastating as far as injuries and property loss. The winds have shifted and picked up and it’s now headed towards the city of Santa Barbara.
This will be my last post about the firestorm. My next post will explain why!
I hope all is well with you!