Unpredictable Behavior Recalled at Calif. Wildfire

SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- Los Angeles County Firefighter Rob Morales was enjoying some time off with his family in August 2009 when a wildfire broke out not far from the Station 16 Camp -- his camp. At first he resisted the lure of going in, but in the end, as most firefighters would, he decided he wasn't going to miss the big one. He packed up, said goodbye to his family and headed to work.

Indeed it was a big one and on Aug. 30, the fire turned deadly, claiming the lives of his partner and his captain as well as destroying the camp and dramatically altering life as he knew it.

Morales shared his story with an audience at Firehouse World in San Diego on Tuesday morning, providing riveting details of the fire and sharing his feelings with the dozens of firefighters who attended the class. It was a rare opportunity for an audience to hear his private and personal story that has been stifled because of the homicide investigation and legal matters involved.

Morales was a guest speaker in a presentation made by John "JP" Harris, a retired battalion chief of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Harris' presentation was titled "Station (Camp 16), Esperanza, Calabasa, Burnovers Common Denominators."

Coverage of Firehouse World  2011

Harris provided some pointers for wildland firefighters and an analyzed similarities shared by both recent and historic wildland fires.

And Morales was the one who brought home the reality of a wildland fire's power and deadly force in a very real way.

The two firefighters killed in Station (16) Fire were Captain Ted Hall and Firefighter Arnie Quinones, both from the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Both were killed in an emergency response vehicle that went off the road and fell 800 feet into a steep canyon while they were trying to escape the fire that overran their camp.

Morales started his presentation with a poignant video tribute to his fallen brothers that was just a few minutes long.

"In the time it took for us to watch this, two people were dead, my camp was gone and nearly everything in my world was different," Morales said, making a point about how quickly the fire took a dramatic turn for the worse.

The crew at Station 16 had trained for fires at their camp, Morales said, but the day the fire hit where they live, literally, it was completely unexpected. "Things were going just the way we predicted and the things we knew that were going to be a problem were going better than we anticipated," he said.

He said he pulled a fire watch the night before the fire hit and he knew it was big fire by the roar and the glow, but it didn't make a huge run overnight. He felt safe and thought the fire would pass by the camp and everything would be fine. That seemed to be the prevalent thought of the whole crew. When day broke, Morales said he had been angling to be with Capt. Hall on his truck and he was disappointed when Hall asked Quinones to go with him on the fire patrol.

Morales went back to his crew and kept an eye on the fire and watched for hot spots and embers as it came closer.

At one point, embers showered the camp and he went to see what he could do to put them out. "I soon realized there were way too many and there was nothing I could do," Morales said.

As the fire came closer, Morales sheltered behind a metal door briefly. He thought they might lose a couple of buildings, but everyone would be OK. The fire grew worse and Morales decided to beeline to the chow hall where the other firefighters in the camp were sheltering as well.

As he headed there, he thought that would be the end of him. "I didn't think I was going to make it," he said. "I heard my crew screaming like you never want to hear them scream." He recalled looking out and seeing virtually everything in the camp on fire. "I knew we were losing and I hollered the F-word as loud as I could," he said.

A window in the chow hall broke and then someone in the crew called out that they were going to die in the building if they stayed.

"I made a decision to leave the building," Morales said. "I decided that if I was going to die, they were going to find me outside and not have to dig through a pile of bodies to find me."

Even though he was in great peril, Morales said he never stopped thinking about Hall and Quinones, who he knew were either in trouble, or were outrunning the fire as they headed down the canyon.

As Morales made his way across the camp, he noticed that the area where the privately owned vehicles were parked was not burned and the air would sustain life. He radioed to the crew to run to the area where the trucks were parked and told them the air was good.

As all the members of the crew gathered, he told them to jump in the trucks as they evacuated.

"I didn't care what truck they got into, we just needed to get out of there," Morales said, adding that he was hoping they would catch up with Hall and Quinones on the road.

As they left the station that was ablaze, Morales knew they had to focus their attention on finding the two missing crew members, who were not responding to any radio transmissions. "As we went looking for them, I'd say 'Ted, Arnie' and then pray," Morales said. "I did that over and over. ‘Ted, Arnie,’ and then pray."

As the crew and trucks made their way from the camp, they came across fresh tire tracks that went straight off the edge of the road. Initially, Morales didn't believe they could be tracks from his colleagues' unit. He didn't want to believe it.

Nevertheless, they had to check it out and Morales went down the steep embankment to look.

"As I got to the bottom, there was a little bump and I paused for a minute and said a prayer to myself," Morales said. "I took two steps over there they were right there, and the truck was upside down." He paused as his emotions briefly took over. He quickly found Arnie and then found Ted in the truck. Then the reality set in; the fire had claimed two lives.

Morales recalls being ordered to evacuate the area. "I said I wasn't going anywhere," Morales said. "Then, I threw the radio. I was done talking."

He stayed with his fallen brothers. He said he stayed with them five hours before they were recovered. He had hoped the recovery would have been done much quicker.

"We have to do a better job with things like that," Morales recalled.

Harris said it would be too easy to simply dismiss the case and say the two fallen firefighters should never have been mid slope on a growing fire with vegetation between the fire and their location. That would be the easy way to dismiss it and not learn from the loss.

"We have to do a better job teaching our firefighters about these kinds of things," Harris said. He added that unpredictable fire behavior has been a huge factor in virtually all the fatal fires or ones that injured firefighters.

"Out of the last 20 big fires, the fire behavior of 19 of them surprised the firefighters," Harris said.

Morales said wildland firefighters are in the business of predicting fire behavior and sometimes, it doesn't happen the way you think it should.

"You have to have a passion for this and the unpredictable," Morales said. "You have to because you might have a day like I had, when everything changed."