California Firefighter Races to Save Home from Wildfire

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif.-- Before Paul Matheis left for work Monday, the Newport Beach firefighter told his family to call him if the fire hit the top of the ridge where they live in Foothill Ranch.

After his panic-stricken daughter called him several times with updates, Matheis raced back home and took matters into his own hands.

He did what most firefighters would do when facing the flames: The division chief threw on his gear and went to war on the fire threatening his home while his wife Carol and daughter Christina waited nervously inside.

"I got to my house [at 2 p.m.] right when the flaming front was hitting that area," Matheis said. "There was a tremendous amount of smoke and heat coming off that fire."

Howling winds up to 35 mph whipped through the neighborhood, Matheis said. That's when he knew the situation got really serious.

When Matheis got to his home, a rescue worker from another department leaned against a fire hydrant in front.

He didn't know Matheis lived there. After a surprised "hello," Matheis' friend told him to suit up and get to work.

"So I put on my safety gear and went across the street, and there were birds that had died lying in my driveway," Matheis said. "It was weird. When it gets that bad, you're done."

All the "looky-loos" around his home didn't seem to register the danger. But the firefighters were too focused on their work to steer them away.

Fortunately, Matheis' home escaped the flames because it had a tile roof and firefighters had plenty of water available, he said.

Matheis wasn't the only local rescue worker threatened by the Santiago Canyon blaze. Of Newport's 130 firefighters, about 20 live in the torched San Diego and Orange County areas.

Three of the 102 sworn firefighters and emergency workers in Costa Mesa, including Fire Chief Mike Morgan, live near the Santiago blaze.

Some, like the Matheises, held out; others -- who waited until the last possible moment -- dove into packed vehicles and raced off. But Matheis stayed, defending the home behind him.

"I have been in this situation before, but never when my home and family were threatened," Matheis told co-workers and friends in an e-mail.

"Usually you're dealing with it and not thinking, 'OK, I have to save the house,' but I now had to consider the family inside as well this time," he said Wednesday.

If you're looking for someone displaced by the wildfires, visit firesearch.latimes.com, where evacuees can register their information showing where they are.

Republished with permission of The Daily Pilot.

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