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Heroic Rescue Saved Firefighters' Lives

Some 10,000 firefighters battled the inferno in San Diego County last week. One hundred or so got hurt. No firefighters died. Many of them brought back stories of survival. The first injuries were rep

Heroic Rescue Saved Firefighters' Lives

Some 10,000 firefighters battled the inferno in San Diego County last week. One hundred or so got hurt. No firefighters died. Many of them brought back stories of survival. The first injuries were reported in the Harris Fire, near Potrero, on the first day of the disaster. KPBS reporter Andrew Phelps picks up the story from there.

Just as the Harris Fire started to grow, CalFire Captain Matt Streck was showing around some reporters. That's when he heard the cries for help on his radio.

Streck: Literally, it was blood-curdling screams for help that none of us will ever forget.

Streck heard the screams on a local frequency, so he knew he was close. He left the reporters behind and drove his F-350 pickup straight into the fire.

Streck: That's not unusual for CalFire and other agencies to have to go through flames, but the length of time, you know, sometimes it's just -- you dash through a flame that's going across the road. And this just went on and on and on. It's probably one of the most - I don't want to say exciting, because it wasn't exciting. Intimidating is probably the best word. It was the most intimidating experience of my life. And every time I thought the flames were gonna stop, it just kept going and going.

As Streck raced toward Potrero, helicopter pilot Mike Wagstaff was hearing the same cries crackling over the radio.

Wagstaff: He said that he had a serious burnover. There were several serious injuries. And probably fatalities. At this stage we immediately went into a recovery mode. The air attack officer and the plane overhead started ordering up air ambulances. Myself and Copter 12 flew down to the area that we suspected these people were in.}

Wagstaff says the smoke practically blinded him.

Wagstaff: The wind was just howling. It was very bumpy, very strong. As I got closer to the captain, he eventually said that he could see me. And I saw a fire captain dressed in his yellow jacket. And I asked him to wave to me. Sure enough, he waved, and it was a great thought that I had found the right person, and I was in the right area.

Wagstaff touched down on a tiny patch of dirt road. But the fire captain stayed put. Wagstaff realized he must have been waiting for the rest of his crew.

Wagstaff: And I was rapidly getting enveloped in a very, very large cloud of smoke, and I realized this wasn't good for myself, the helicopter, or any of the rescue effort. I lifted off, got out of there as quick as I could, and held off a little bit further to the south.

Wagstaff managed to land in a better spot. This time the fire captain ran into the chopper with two of his crew members. One of them carried a teenage boy, wrapped in a blanket.

Wagstaff loaded the crew and locked the doors. One of the firefighters was missing, but he would have to stay behind. They rushed to the Potrero fire station, where Matt Streck was waiting.

Streck: Probably about a half-hour into it they brought in the fourth firefighter that was missing. They had assumed he had been killed. So it was really a great experience to see him walking in. Even though he was burned, at least he was alive.

Just when Streck thought the worst was over, the burned civilians started coming in. Many of them were people who firefighters call "international travelers" --  illegal border crossers.

Streck: It seems like they like to wear nylon jogging suits. And so over the course of the next hour or two, we had 11 more burn victims come in with a variety of burns. Some of them were so bad - you couldn't tell if it was the nylon jogging suit that had shrink-wrapped to their skin, or it was their burnt skin. I've never been in war, but I can imagine what it's like now. Every time you think it's going to stop, there's just more people, more victims coming in with more, and worse, injuries.

Streck says 18 civilians were treated for burns on that first day of the Harris Fire, including the teenage boy. The boy lost his father to the flames.

The four firefighters are still recovering at the UCSD Burn Center. Two of them are in medically-induced comas. They're in critical condition.

Andrew Phelps, KPBS News.

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