Friday, December 08, 2017

Right now a lot of southern California is burning from wildfires and hot winds blowing them around. How dangerous is being a firefighter? Here's a local true story

Brooke Linman and her crew were trying to protect a home in the remote East County community of Potrero when they found themselves in trouble.

In the early morning hours of October 21, 2007, wildfires that would eventually consume much of San Diego County had already taken hold of the back country. The Harris Fire began near the Mexican Border in the rural community of Potrero. Now it was rapidly burning to the north and west, encouraged by drought-dry brush and howling Santa Ana winds. The fire moved quickly – 2.25 miles of landscape within the first 90 minutes.

At 11 a.m., Brooke’s fire station in Dulzura was called to provide structure protection in Potrero. On board CAL FIRE’s Engine 3387 were Captain Raymond Rapue, firefighters Andrew Pikop, Jose Viramontes and Linman. When the team arrived at the scene, they were met by a frantic Thomas Varshock and his 15-year-old son, Richard.

“I remember being surprised, because we were in the middle of the burn, which, for a firefighter, is the safest place to be," she said. "The fire’s already gone through. Burn doesn’t burn. Usually.”

Linman’s crew drove to Vorshak’s house and surrounded it with hoses. Despite blasting it with water, the home was quickly engulfed in flames.

The hillsides were ablaze. Blowing cinders and acrid smoke filled the air. Conditions rapidly turned from bad to worse, forcing the crew to pull back from their original position to avoid being surrounded by the quickly-moving fire.  The crew and 15-year-old Richard Varshock took refuge in a fire truck when the windows exploded.

As they tried to pull out of the area to safety, their engine stalled.

Linman was reaching for her radio to call for help when the windows exploded.

 “I remember dropping the radio, sinking into my chair, and just having that thought that 'I can’t believe I’m going to die in my fire engine right now,'” Linman said.

Surrounded by intense heat and smoke, they jumped into the engine’s cab for protection. In an instant, their refuge became a trap, as extreme heat blew out the engine’s windows. Choking smoke and flame quickly filled the cab.

"There was a moment when I thought, 'I cannot believe I'm going to die in this engine right now,' and then something else clicked in: 'You're not. You're getting out of this engine now,' " Linman said.

One by one, the crew and the Vorshaks squeezed out of the vehicle. When it was Linman’s turn, she jumped out into the flames and ran.

After a few moments, Linman stopped. All was quiet. And then the pain hit. Linman realized she was on fire.  She grabbed her water bottles and poured them over her head.  Linman had lost her helmet. Her face was scorched, and her hair was burned off.

 Linman got out of the truck and soon was trying to put the fire out on her face and get under her emergency shelter.

“And then I heard Richard scream. And it was one of those screams that chills you to your bones," she said. "And I turned and I looked and there he was, walking toward me. He was standing ... skin was hanging, full of soot, he was just in agony.”

Linman forgot about herself.  "And as soon as I heard him and saw him ... I have a patient, I have a job to do.” Linman got out her fire shelter and grabbed the teenager.

“And with one foot, held the shelter, and with the other arm, held the shelter, and with my other leg and arm, held him," she recalled.

 Badly injured, they took cover, praying that help would arrive. Somehow it did. U.S. Forest Service helicopter pilot Mike Wagstaff was flying water drops nearby. Despite the erratic winds, near-zero visibility and high-voltage power lines, Wagstaff bravely managed to locate and rescue the group.

Richard Varshock, Linman, her captain and fellow firefighters were airlifted to safety and transported to UCSD Regional Burn Center for treatment. All were severely burned and sustained internal trauma from smoke inhalation. Thomas Varshock, 52, died as a result of his injuries.

For two weeks, Linman lay in a medically-induced coma to allow her body to heal, but there were no guarantees she or the other firefighters would survive. The firefighter had been burned on her face, ears, right shoulder and lungs; her left knee was badly injured when she hit the ground. Three weeks after the fire, Linman was released from the burn unit – dressings and ointment covering parts of her face and ears, a pronounced limp when she tried to walk.

“I wanted to get back to my career, and I couldn’t do that, it was taken from me," she lamented. "I lost my career to the fire. And I didn’t know who I was if I wasn’t a firefighter.” For Linman, getting back to life has meant getting her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from San Diego State University.

And she’s found a new calling: She wants to work as a counselor for first responders who have been burned on the job. Ideally, Linman would like to work with her comrades at Cal Fire.

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