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Recovering Firefighter Describes Heroic Act of Saving Teen’s Life

There were plenty of heroes in last October’s wildfires in San Diego County. One fire fighter in particular helped save a teenager’s life, even though she was badly burned herself. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg catches up with the firefighter, who six months later is back on the job.

Brooke Linman stands outside her North County fire station and takes a breath of fresh air. On this beautiful spring morning, she’s happy to be alive.

When she’s talking and looking at you, you don’t notice anything out of the ordinary. But when Linman turns her head, you can see scars around her ear. Last October 21st, Linman and her Cal Fire crew were dispatched to the Southeast County town of Potrero. Flames from what would soon be called the Harris fire were burning down homes in the area.

When the crew got on-site, they started going house to house to try to knock out the fire. Linman says one home in particular looked like it could be saved.

Brooke Linman: We had watched it go through that valley already, and when we headed in, we thought we were okay, we were actually driving through burn.

As they drove through the smoke, they found a father and his teenage son whose all terrain vehicle had broken down. Thomas and Richard Varshock climbed in the fire engine with the crew.

In moments, they reached the Varshock’s home. The crew got out to fight the fire, but the house became completely engulfed in flames. Limman’s captain ordered the crew back in the truck.

Linman: It quickly went from let’s try and save this home to, we need to save our lives, let’s get out of here. As we were trying to get out, my captain couldn’t see, so we couldn’t back the engine out. And then the windows actually blew out. After that, everybody jumped out the engine to the left, and ran through the fire.

Linman remembers running into the flames, and feeling relieved when she got to other side.

Linman: A few seconds later, then the pain started. So then I remember thinking, ow, I’m on fire, and started grabbing my water bottles, and putting my face out, and then I heard Richard screaming.

Linman ran and grabbed the teenager. He was burned and in terrible pain. Fierce winds were blowing embers and rocks all over the place. Linman opened up her emergency fire shelter and held it over them.

The next thing she knew, a helicopter landed and got them out of there. The boy she was with and all of the Cal Fire crew were brought to the UCSD Burn unit in Hillcrest. The boy’s father died in the flames.

Nurse Leann Cortimiglia was on-duty that day. She says Linman was rolled in with terrible burns on her face.

Leann Cortimiglia: She was scared and she was kind of crying a little. And so I went in the room, and I told her, I said, you know what? You’re gonna be okay, you’re just gonna take a little nap.

That nap ended up being two weeks long. Linman was placed into a coma, because of inhalation injuries. UCS-D physician assistant Catherine Ridgeway explains.

Catherine Ridgeway: Sometimes the lungs just take a couple of weeks to recover, and so we’ve got to put them on a ventilator, so they have to be paralyzed and sedated in order for this ventilator to work and let the lungs heal. 

When Linman finally woke up, nurse Cortimiglia was there. She helped Linman through the early stages of her recovery, and they’ve become close friends.

Cortimiglia says the teenager who was burned in the Harris fire survived thanks to Linman.

Cortimiglia: She really, really made a difference to that patient in the field, and, it was her training, it was the fact the she’s a woman, and it’s the fact that she’s a mother. All those things all clicked in, and she wasn’t thinking of herself. In my mind, that’s why I think of her of such a hero.

Linman brushes off such talk, saying says she was just doing her job. Linman concedes the day she was burned was the worst she ever had.

Linman: But ever since that day, nothing but great things have happened to me. The community outreach, you know, my department, my crew, we’ve gotten so much help from everyone and so much love.

Linman has had skin grafts to her face and shoulder. She may need some additional work to remove the scars. She still needs to have reconstructive surgery on her knee.

But all that will have to wait. That’s because Linman is pregnant with her second child. Her baby is due in November.

Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.

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