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...

"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."