Firefighter's Death Scars Gold Country

Sun Mar 13, 7:55 AM ET Top Stories - Los Angeles Times

By Chelsea J. Carter Associated Press Writer

GROVELAND, Calif. — Mountain peaks dusted with snow loom over the Tuolumne River, which is swollen by winter rains. On a rock-strewn slope, the ground 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. Folks know that they earn their living from the land, working as anything from outfitters to wildland firefighters.

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.

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 wildland firefighting unit.

Just now, though, the attention of 404 was on food, not fire. Everybody was pitching in on Sunday brunch. Eva Schicke, 23, was on hashed-browns duty, and crewmate Shane Neveau was teasing her about her cooking skills. It was just a joke: When the 5-foot-6 blond had started as a seasonal firefighter four years earlier, she couldn't boil water. Yet now the only woman in 404 was known for her firefighting skills — and her enchiladas.

Outside on this September Sunday, conditions were ripe for fire: temperatures rising to the 90s and hot winds.

Not long after brunch cleanup, the alarm sounded: BEEP, BEEP, BEEP.

The U.S. Forest Service spotted the smoke at 12:33 p.m. Sept. 12 from a lookout post in Tuolumne River Canyon of 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 the California Department of Forestry and its Helitack crew 22 miles away.

"We're going to have a full day," said firefighter Jeff Boatman, who piled aboard 404's Huey helicopter with his crewmates. By the time the helicopter's skids touched down on a gravel bar along the Tuolumne, air tankers were already making water drops.

Thick smoke blotted the sun; flames were moving uphill between the river and a road; a steady light wind was blowing. Fire Capt. Jonah Winger pointed out two safety zones — the riverbank and the road.

The crew's job was to flank the fire, force it to move in another direction. As part of routine procedure, 404 dropped its backpack water pumps at the edge of the road in an area deemed safe. The crew would rely on hand tools and chain saws to cut fire lines.

The firefighters fell in behind Winger as he headed down the slope. First T.J. 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 stopped for a moment at the edge of the road, letting space build between him and Neveau. But Schicke stepped in to fill it, and Boatman fell in behind as 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.

"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. They tumbled through brush, leaping through an opening in the fire, hitting rocks and trees.

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.

"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.

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 Cal State 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.

At the same time, the guys knew a softer side. People opened up to Eva.

Now, 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.

"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 that 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 romance.

Now, they were looking toward the future. Schicke had recently told her mother, "This is the guy. I'm going to marry him."

They were unofficially engaged. Buhler had the ring, but 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.

Department of Forestry Battalion Chief Jeff Millar was in the command truck when he received a cellphone call.

He had recruited Eva Schicke into firefighting. Millar's wife, LeAnn, was the Stanislaus basketball coach. Over the years, the couple became close with Eva, who sometimes baby-sat 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.

She signed up, assigned first to Millar's department in Arnold, then Helitack. She'd return to Arnold sometimes, to put in overtime — and Millar remembered the last time he saw her there. With no major calls, firefighters spruced up the department and Eva worked on a small patch of dirt in front of the building, planting pansies.

"The Garden of Eva" the firefighters dubbed the plot.

"Don't you let those die," she yelled as she drove off.

Although stunned by Eva's death, Buhler raced to reach her mother.

Joyce Schicke was sobbing when he 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 forestry department 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.

For the funeral, Arnold firefighters refashioned engine No. 4474, removing the hose bed and building a cradle for her casket.

On the 20-mile drive from the funeral home in Sonora to the Calaveras County Fairgrounds, the truck led a 350 fire-vehicle procession. 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 clutched her daughter's helmet and wept at words meant to comfort her.

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 gave 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 important, 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 department report on just what happened, and why. A preliminary report emphasizes a wind shift; officials say it appears that Schicke slipped.

In the forest, beneath the soggy, blackened soil, rebirth stirs. Soon, green shoots will push up.

It's the same slow healing for the mountain communities — where windshield stickers read, "In Memory of Eva Schicke," where fundraisers 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.