It´s been more than three months since three firefighters from Calaveras County were overrun by flames and smoke, battling a Southern California wildfire.
CDF firefighters Stacey Gleason of Valley Springs, Pat Ousby of Jackson and Fire Captain Tom Lotko of Modesto were assigned to a five engine strike team from Calaveras County and sent to the 7,000-acre Blue Cut fire in the San Bernardino National Forest.
While on the fire line in the Cajon Pass June 17th, the trio – based at the Esperanza CDF fire station near Mountain Ranch – and another engine crew were overrun by flames when winds shifted and drove the fire back on top of them and their engines.
Firefighter Ousby was riding on the back of their engine and deployed the fire blanket. Lotko got in the cab of the truck, and Gleason deployed his fire shelter on the ground. The three suffered minor first- and second-degree burns to the hands and face, as well as smoke inhalation. They were sent to an area hospital for treatment.
Gleason and his follow firefighters are now back on the job and were found working yesterday´s 10 acre Valley fire in the national forest near Arnold.
Firefighter Gleason still remembers those scary moments when he and the crew were surrounded by flames.
“Oh…it´s a little hard to explain how it was,” Gleason says, still trying to shake off the memory. “It definitely makes you think a little bit,” he said. At the time, all he could think about was getting in his fire shelter.
“And then while I was lying there, one of my thoughts was, ´Well, you know, it can’t end like this,” he recalled.
Getting back into the line of fire hasn’t been easy, says Gleason.
“I was a little nervous the first two weeks,” he admitted. “The first day I was really nervous. Then when we got our first little fire, I was pretty nervous, but after that, I was alright.”
The firefighters credit their training for getting out of the close call with only minor injuries. “Yeah, the safety gear saved my life, but the training saved my life, too,” Gleason said.
Their burned fire engine has been repaired, repainted and will be returned to service in a couple weeks.
CDF counselors told Gleason it will take a while for him and the others to get fully “back in the groove” after the traumatic accident.
Danger comes with the job, and it hasn’t stopped Gleason’s enthusiasm for his career. Pulling a fire hose through a still burning section of pine trees and underbrush, Gleason – his face blackened with soot and his yellow fire gear stained orange from a close retardant drop – manages a smile. “This is what I love.”