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Out of the smoke: Tales from the wildfires' front lines

In 30 years of fighting fires locally and throughout the state, Charlie Huff has never seen winds like those that buffeted Southern California, spawning massive wildfires.

Huff, 52, is a captain with the Atwater Fire Department. He and several local firefighters returned home Tuesday after 10 days on the San Diego fire lines and said many people got lucky as damage could have been more severe, with winds gusting to 70 to 80 mph.

Other Merced-area firefighters remain down south on remaining fire lines, with the prospect of renewed Santa Ana winds promising more havoc this weekend.

Mike W. McLaughlin, fire division chief with the Merced Fire Department, was a strike team leader who also came home Tuesday from the widespread devastation. More than 15 major wildfires destroyed some 2,100 homes and blackened 809 square miles from Los Angeles to the Mexican border last week. Seven deaths were blamed directly on the fires.

"No one will believe us when we tell the stories. During the daily briefing, the incident commander said something that was really cool. He said this was one of the fire service's finest moments. There was no rest, no help but nobody was giving up. You have to take the hand you're dealt and go with it," McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin, 39, and 19 others with his strike team had no sooner arrived at the fire station in Potrero near the Mexican border when they hurried to a nearby school where one of the portables was already engulfed in flames and the others downwind would be the next to go.

"We were the initial attack, first response units on the school and it was a little bit chaotic. This is an upper desert area and the school is sitting in a valley. There were 10 to 12 buildings total and we expected to lose multiple classrooms.

"The strike team worked their butts off; the guys did a phenomenal job, even with 50 to 60 mph winds. They rose to the occasion and it could have been a lot worse," McLaughlin said.

Battalion Chief Mark Akers, 51, of the Merced Fire Department was the leader of a different area-based strike team. In 27 years as a firefighter, he's seen plenty of fires and been assigned to about 15 major blazes in the state. But that's not what he will remember from this one.

"For me it's not so much the fire; it's more the personnel you work with that makes the strike team. It's the 'can-do' attitude, the camaraderie, and humor. They all know what to do to get the job done," Akers said.

Akers' strike team was assigned to the Santiago Fire in Orange County and deployed to Modjeska Canyon. Their job was to protect 35 modest homes along one road from a fire approaching from a nearby ridge. Ultimately no homes were lost as improving weather slowed the fire's spread and advance preparation helped defend them against the blaze.

Still, there's a chilling, matter-of-fact way of preparing to fight a major fire. Houses are rated as defensible, non-defensible and moderate. In one of the threatening fire scenarios, Akers said three homes were determined to be "pretty much indefensible" but ultimately none were lost.

McLaughlin said San Diego area residents were appreciative of firefighters' efforts, to the point of it being embarrassing and uncomfortable. He said the outpouring of support was "pretty overwhelming."

As firefighters, McLaughlin said they take calculated risk and put themselves in positions of peril. Still, the strike teams had lookouts in place and escape routes identified in case treacherous winds shifted course.

McLaughlin, who has been with the Merced department six months, has been a firefighter for 18 years, the last 14 with the Lawrence Livermore Lab fire department, serving as assistant fire chief. In mutual aid situations, where local firefighters get sent to major blazes throughout the state, he figures he has been to 20 such incidents over the years.

McLaughlin's strike team worked 48 hours before they were relieved. They spent four to five hours at Potrero Elementary School and then moved to the tiny town of Potrero, to protect a mom-and-pop grocery store, post office, fire station, surrounding trailers and 10 to 15 homes in the area.

"On the second night, there was some big stuff (embers) blowing in the wind. Everybody down there worked their tails off. It was pure determination and a lot of hard work," McLaughlin said.

On another assignment, about 25 homes were located in the remote Horizon View subdivision, with only the five Merced-area engines and 20 firefighters to protect them.

"There was fire to the left, right, up and down. We were it. Two homes were lost and one of them was heavily involved (in flames) when we arrived. The other one was impossible to defend. We were there about eight hours," McLaughlin said.

Huff said he worked alongside engines from Oregon, Washington and Idaho, along with a fire crew from Tijuana, Mexico. Firefighters had to make sure the ever-present flying fire embers didn't land on roofs, under the eaves or foundations.

Akers said his strike team also was assigned to protect expensive cell telephone towers from fires running up the ridges. Hand crews would cut firebreaks around the towers and aerial tankers would drop retardant to slow the spread of approaching fires.

Akers' unit was assigned to the Malibu Canyon fire and he saw at least a dozen expensive homes reduced to ashes in the fires that passed through the area into the surrounding hills the night before.

"For people in the area, this was nothing new to them. They pretty much knew what to do. There was a lot of smoke, a lot of fire," Akers said.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209-385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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