Surviving The 2007 Wildfires: After Suffering Critical Burns, Firefighter Finds A New Life
Brooke Linman lives on a quiet street in Mira Mesa. She has three young children and a daughter who's a senior in high school.
Linman’s living room is filled with mementos from her eight-year career as a firefighter. A blackened object sits on the mantle in a glass case.
It’s Linman’s badge. She was wearing it on the day she almost burned to death.
A good fire day
It was Sunday, Oct. 21, 2007. It was hot. Santa Ana winds were blowing and Linman was at a fire station in San Marcos.
“And we heard the fire start in South County, on the radio," she recalled. "And it was one of those days — you woke up and you knew this was going to be a good fire day.”
The Harris Fire breaks out
Shortly after the fire broke out near the town of Portero, Linman’s crew was sent to fight it. The crew raced along state Route 94 trying to save homes. After an hour or so, they were summoned to a property where the fire had just burned through. The property owner, Thomas Vorshak, and his teenage son, Richard, were trying to save their house.
Linman sees smoke
Linman saw smoke billowing up around them.
“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.
Everyone piled into the fire engine to escape, but the vehicle was stuck. The heat was building up around them. Linman’s captain yelled out to put fire shelters in the windows.
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.
Linman felt ready to give in. Suddenly, she remembered her daughter’s face.
“And I had distinct thoughts of her, and seeing her," she remembered. "I sat back up and said, ‘no, you’re getting out of this fire engine right now, you’re not dying today.’”
Running into the fire
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.
“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 I’ve told Richard to this day, ‘you saved me that day,’ because I think I would have gone into shock and just laid down and given up," she said. "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.
The rescuer gets rescued
The next thing she knew, a helicopter landed close by.
The helicopter took Linman to a nearby fire station, where she and the other injured firefighters were triaged. She was then taken to the burn unit at UC San Diego Medical Center in Hillcrest.
Linman was in bad shape. She had burns on her face from ear to ear, and on the right side of her back, from where the fire engine windows exploded.
In addition, Linman had been in such intense heat for so long, that she also suffered burns to her lungs.
At the burn unit
By the time she arrived at the burn unit, Linman's airway had started to close. Dr. Jeanne Lee was on duty that day. She said Linman was heavily sedated and put on a ventilator. Lee said people who suffer deep inhalation burns have to get their lungs suctioned out.
“These patients are sedated so heavily that they don’t really cough very well," she explained. "So we sometimes have to help them by suctioning out any secretions that develop, because if you don’t, those things, if they get caught in the lungs, they can turn into pneumonia.”
Linman also had to undergo painful daily scrubbings of her skin burns to prevent them from becoming infected.
“We do it about once a day, sometimes twice a day depending on how bad it is, but it’s at least once a day," Lee said. "And one dressing change for somebody who has a significant burn can take two to three hours.”
Linman was released after three weeks in the hospital. What she did not realize was her recovery was just beginning. Linman had to undergo a number of skin grafts and other surgeries.
The mental trauma
But that was nothing compared to the emotional and mental trauma. Linman did not feel like the same person anymore.
“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.”
She also did not know that she was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“If you don’t know anything about PTSD, you don’t attribute it to that," Linman said. "You’re wondering why you’re angry, you’re wondering why you’re yelling at the people you love the most, and why you’re shutting people out.”
Linman discovered a bitter truth: As a burn survivor, she was not the only one who was hurt — her family was, too.
Turning things around
The Burn Institute really helped Linman turn things around. The nonprofit group offers a host of services, including financial and emotional support for burn survivors and their families.
“And that’s what a burn survivor needs is support," Linman said. "Once you get past the hospital, and the physical, you try to get back to life. That support system of people who know exactly what you’re going through and what you’re gonna need; anticipating what you’re gonna need, before you even know you need it.”
Linman has also gotten involved with the Phoenix Society, a national nonprofit peer-support group for burn survivors. What’s more, she has become friends with a number of other firefighters who have suffered burn injuries.
“And we’ve all kind of taken this journey together, how to get back to life," she said.
A new direction
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.
Linman nearly died on that Sunday in October 10 years ago. Today, she looks back with a fresh perspective.
“That day took so much from me, but what I didn’t realize is for many years later, was that day gave me so many blessings," Linman said. "It changed the direction of my life, to a place I think I was always supposed to be.”