Long story...but well worth reading!

By CHELSEA J. CARTER
AP National Writer
GROVELAND, Calif. (AP) - Mountain peaks dusted with snow loom
over the Tuolumne River, which is swollen by winter rains. Oaks and
ponderosa pines create a broken canopy on the steep rock-strewn
foothills.
This time of year, the ground is typically wet and brown. But
now a portion of it is black and lifeless, with trees charred and
split from a wildland fire months ago.
They call this California Gold Country, a place where thousands
scrounged for riches in the mid-1800s. These days, throngs flock
here to kayak or hike. People who grow up on this land learn to
appreciate the beauty and resources that draw these visitors, the
main industry here now. Folks know they earn their living from the
land, whether as outfitters or small business owners, or as
wildland firefighters, protecting it.
Here, firehouses are the center of communities, places where
townspeople gather to socialize, to raise money, sometimes to
mourn. Firefighting offers full-time and seasonal jobs to many
families living in these hills.
It's rare that a firefighter is lost defending this land, and
when it happens it leaves a scar as dark as the burned-over woods.
This is a story about such a death, and about the painful
healing that follows - a slow process, like the way the blackened
land recovers, season by season.
---
It was "Greasy Sunday" in the kitchen of the California
Department of Forestry air base at Columbia, home of Helitack 404,
part of an elite wildfire-fighting unit.
Just now, though, the attention of 404 was on food, not fire.
Everybody was pitching in on Sunday brunch - biscuits, gravy,
pancakes and eggs.
Eva Schicke was on hashed-brown duty, and crewmate Shane Neveau
was teasing her about her cooking skills. It was just a joke: When
the petite blonde had started as a seasonal firefighter four years
earlier, she couldn't boil water. Yet she'd tackled cooking with a
determination she did all things, and now the only woman in 404 was
known for her firefighting skills - and her enchiladas.
Outside, as the firefighters ate, the sun was heating things up
on this September Sunday. State fire officials had warned
conditions were ripe for fire: temperatures rising to the 90s, and
hot winds. And years of drought had turned trees into kindling.
After brunch cleanup, Schicke settled down at the dining room
table to study. Neveau sacked out on the couch to watch TV.
Firefighter T.J. Fraser was trying to fix a chair he broke earlier.
In the bunkroom, Jeff Boatman was taking a nap. Fire Capt. Frank
Podesta was in his office when the alarm sounded.
BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.
---
The rotors were already chopping the air when the 404 loaded
into a Super Huey. As the red-and-white helicopter lifted,
crewmembers saw gray smoke rising in the distance.
The U.S. Forest Service spotted the smoke at 12:33 p.m. from a
lookout post in the Tuolumne River Canyon of the Stanislaus
National Forest. By 12:45 p.m., the fire was moving toward
campgrounds and Highway 120, the western route into Yosemite
National Park. The Forest Service made a "mutual aid" call,
requesting help from CDF and its Helitack crew 22 miles away.
"We're going to have a full day," said Boatman, who, like
others in the chopper, knew the terrain they were approaching -
steep hillsides covered in loose rock. Boatman had kayaked portions
of the Tuolumne; others had camped in the area.
By the time the helicopter's skids touched down on a gravel bar
along the river, air tankers were already making water drops.
Thick smoke blotted the sun as the 404 prepared to attack the
fire.
Flames were moving uphill between the river and the road, a
steep, rugged span of 240 feet. A steady, light wind was blowing.
Fire Capt. Jonah Winger had pointed out two safety zones - the
river bank and the road.
The crew's job was to flank the right side of the fire. It was
routine procedure in wildland fires: Circle it, cut it off, force
it to move in another direction. As part of the procedure, 404
dropped their backpack water pumps at the edge of the road in an
area deemed safe. They'd rely on hand tools and chain saws to cut
fire lines.
The firefighters fell in behind Winger as he headed down the
slope. First Fraser, then Jon Andahl and Josh Agustin. They were
followed by Neveau.
"I sure love this job," one jokingly grumbled, "except for
all the smoke and heat."
Boatman took a step and stopped for a moment at the edge of the
road. He was letting space build between him and Neveau. But Eva
Schicke stepped in to fill it.
"OK, I'll go," she said lightly, teasing him with a look that
said he wasn't moving fast enough. They had worked too many fires
together, though, to ever believe the other wasn't pulling their
weight.
Boatman fell in behind, bringing up the rear. And 404 got to
work, clearing brush and leaves.
Flying embers were igniting spot fires, and Boatman, closest to
the road, went to get a water pumper.
That's when the wind shifted.
Boatman heard it first: the roar. Then he saw it: a wall of
flame racing up the slope toward the firefighters below him.
"Get out of there," he screamed at Schicke and Neveau. The two
looked at him, then back at the fire. They turned and started to
run uphill.
About 30 feet below, Winger yelled the same warning to Fraser,
Agustin and Andahl.
Suddenly, the fire was nearly on top of the four men. They
tumbled through brush, leaping through an opening in the fire,
hitting rocks and trees.
Above, Boatman screamed again at Neveau and Schicke: "Run.
Run!"
The fire was gaining momentum. Smoke erased Boatman's view, and
heat forced him to step back.
Suddenly, a firefighter rolled out onto the road - chased by
flames that leaped into the trees on the other side.
The firefighter was Neveau, who struggled to get to his feet.
"Am I burned?" he cried. "Is my face burned?"
"Where's Eva?" Boatman shouted.
"She was right behind me," replied Neveau, who was having
trouble breathing.
Boatman called down the smoking slope: "Eva. Eva. Eva!" There
was no answer.
The 404 began a grid search, soon joined by the crews of three
fire engines. From the river's edge, Winger and his crew struggled
up the hill - until a falling rock struck Fraser hard, forcing him
to his knees.
Get up, he told himself. Go up there and find her. She'd do it
for you.
They all felt that way.
This was a woman who went out of her way to carry her own
weight, earning her way into the tight-knit club of wildland
firefighting. Her athletic ability won her initial respect.
It began years before at the Arnold Fire Department, her first
firefighting job. A male counterpart challenged her to a game of
hoops - and she stuffed him. At the time, she was a star basketball
player at California State University, Stanislaus.
When she was invited to join Helitack, she played volleyball,
again commanding equal treatment.
As a firefighter, she'd haul her own hose, roll it and put it
away. If you even tried to treat her differently than the rest of
the crew, Fraser knew, "She'd kick your butt."
At the same time, the guys knew a softer side. People opened up
to Eva. If a fellow firefighter had a problem, there was never a
judgment, never a smart remark from her.
Near the top of the road, Boatman found a hand shovel in the
"black," the scorched area. Winger and the other searchers were
approaching from below.
It was Neveau who first spotted something on the smoking ground.
He pointed to a spot about 100 feet from the road.
"No!" Winger cried out.
Composing himself, he called over the radio:
"We found Eva."
---
Forty miles from the fire's front, at the Ebbetts Pass Fire
Department, Shea Buhler had heard the initial dispatch for 404 to
the fire.
He had no idea there was anything wrong with Helitack 404 and
particularly with Eva Schicke.
The two had met years earlier working as firefighters at Arnold.
It had started as friendship but grew into a romance.
Now, they were looking toward the future. Schicke had recently
told her mother, "This is the guy. I'm going to marry him." Even
her former basketball coach had seen it: "Eva glowed when she
talked about Shea."
They were unofficially engaged. Buhler had the ring. He was
waiting for the right moment. Maybe when they went skiing at
Mammoth in a couple of months. Yeah, that would be the place, he
thought.
But just now, Buhler was being called into the Ebbetts Pass
chief's office. What's wrong, he wondered.
---
On the fire line, word was beginning to spread.
CDF Battalion Chief Jeff Millar, organizing the continuing
battle against the flames, was in the fire command truck when he
received a cell phone call.
He had recruited Eva Schicke into firefighting. Millar's wife
LeAnn was the Stanislaus State coach. Over the years, the couple
became close with Eva, who sometimes even babysat their children.
"You'd make a good firefighter," Millar told Schicke, adding
that she could make substantial money for college just during the
summer fire season.
With that, Schicke signed up. First, she was assigned to
Millar's department in Arnold. Four years later, she came to him
with tears in her eyes. She was leaving, going to Helitack because
it was another challenge and there would be more time for her
nursing studies. Millar hated to lose the spark she brought to the
department.
She'd return sometimes, to put in overtime at Arnold, to help
pay for nursing school.
One time, the last time her saw her, there were no major calls,
and the firefighters spruced up the department. Eva went to work on
a small patch of dirt in front of the building.
On her hands and knees, she planted pansies, a natural in this
mountainous terrain with their delicate flowers and hardy nature.
She even set up a simple watering system, requiring little work
from the firefighters, who instantly called her little plot "The
Garden of Eva."
"Don't you let those die," she yelled as she drove off.
---
The news stunned Buhler - Eva dead? How?
Immediately, he raced to reach her mother. The news will kill
her, he thought.
Joyce Schicke was sobbing when Buhler arrived. She had spent
months worrying about her son, John, a Marine who had been at war
in Iraq. He had come home safely. And now this ...
When the CDF flew Staff Sgt. John Schicke up from Camp
Pendleton, Buhler picked him up. The two went to get Eva, whose
body was still on the mountain.
They helped haul lines, pulling up the woman both loved. It was
silent, except for the sounds of the forest and the wind. An
American flag was draped across the body bag, which was placed in a
pickup for the ride out of the forest.
---
For the funeral, Arnold firefighters refashioned engine No.
4474, the truck she once drove, removing the hose bed and building
a cradle for her casket. Her name was inscribed on the side of the
red truck.
The truck made the 20-mile drive from the funeral home in Sonora
to the Calveras County Fairgrounds. Behind them followed a
350-fire-vehicle procession. A Helitack helicopter followed, flying
as close as possible.
Along the route, through lands that Eva Schicke had fought to
protect, people from California Gold Country stood silent vigil as
the truck passed. More than 3,000 firefighters came to pay their
respects to the first woman California Department of Forestry
firefighter lost in the line of duty.
Joyce Schicke, 54, clutched her daughter's helmet and wept at
words meant to offer comfort.
As John Schicke recalled how his sister used to tear the heads
off Barbie dolls, the wind came up suddenly and knocked over vases
and pictures.
"I'm sorry," he said, smiling toward the sky. "I know she's
laughing at us."
The pastor from her church read a note he said Eva made in her
Bible. It referred to "a happy ending ... eternity."
---
Over the months since Eva Schicke's death, many questions have
arisen for Helitack 404. One stands out.
Was it worth it?
Shane Neveau would give his answer at the same firehouse dining
table where Eva sat studying her nursing books.
"Was it worth that little patch of ground? No," he said.
But he and others who continue to fight fires in Gold Country
say they consider a bigger picture - not a single blackened,
gravelly hillside, but this land itself, the deep woods full of
game, the timber, the trails that draw hikers and campers and keep
this rural place alive. And more importantly, the resources it
provides, the jobs. He answers his own question again.
"Yes," he says, his face hard, his mouth tight.
The firefighters await a final CDF report on just what happened,
and why. A preliminary CDF report emphasizes a wind shift;
officials say it appears Schicke slipped.
Though she's gone, those who knew her say they still feel her
presence.
Her mother says that one day, when her tears wouldn't stop, "I
heard Eva's voice in my head. I heard her say, 'Mom, knock it
off."'
What she had planned as a wedding quilt for Eva she turned into
a photo-laden memory quilt.
Millar speaks of his firefighters' determination never to forget
a woman who taught them a little about life and laughter.
How, he and Podesta ask themselves, can the job be done more
safely as they prepare for the coming fire season.
Winter has brought drenching rain that made mudslides and
headlines in other parts of California, and hope that this year's
fires will be fewer.
In the forest, beneath the soggy, blackened soil, rebirth stirs.
Soon, the first green shoots will push their way through - a start
toward the time when the black is green again.
It's the same slow healing for the mountain communities - where
windshield stickers read, "In Memory Of Eva Schicke," where
fund-raisers are held to create two college scholarships in her
name, where her smiling picture hangs above the "Garden of Eva,"
where in the spring her flowers will bloom again.
---
EDITOR'S NOTE - Donations to the Eva Schicke Memorial Fund:
Sonora Area Foundation, P.O. Box 577, Sonora, Calif. 95370.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)