California Department of Foresty Loses First Female Firefighter in the Line of Duty

A member of an elite helicopter wildfire crew has become the first female firefighter from the California Department of Forestry to die in the line of duty, state officials said Monday.


COLUMBIA, Calif. (AP) -- A member of an elite helicopter wildfire crew has become the first female firefighter from the California Department of Forestry to die in the line of duty, state officials said Monday.

Officials could give few details about what happened when the seven-member crew was apparently overrun by flames Sunday in rugged terrain of the Stanislaus National Forest.

The department identified the woman as Eva Schicke, 24, of Arnold.

``This is a very difficult day for our department,'' said Jim Wright, chief of fire protection at the CDF. ``It is just a reminder of the danger our firefighters face on a daily basis.''

Wright said the crew appeared to have been on the ground about an hour. Their job was to use hand tools to build a fire break ahead of the blaze, which had grown to 800 acres Monday and was 20 percent contained.

Phyllis Banducci, a CDF spokeswoman, said investigators know little about the accident except that it happened in a canyon area and firefighters recorded a change in the wind at about the same time.

Six other firefighters suffered minor injuries.

A college student, Schicke had spent 4 1/2 seasons working as a part-time firefighter.

Because the death happened in a national forest and involved firefighters working for the state, it will be investigated by federal and state fire officials, CDF Director Dale Geldert said.

The department's helicopter team members are considered among the best firefighters in the system, Wright said.

In Arnold, mourners erected a roadside memorial that included flowers and balloons arranged between a pair of boots, a helmet, gloves and a shovel. A bulletin board included notes from friends and colleagues.

George Muedeking, Schicke's academic adviser at California State University at Stanislaus, said she often returned to register for fall classes wearing military fatigues and still smelling of smoke.

``Her commitment was very strong when she decided to do something,'' he said. ``She really saw it through.''

Amid the mourning, fire crews worked to contain a separate wildfire threatening the western Sierra Nevada town of Mariposa, about 50 miles south of the blaze that killed Schicke.

The flames had burned 2,000 acres and forced the evacuation of about 300 homes in the town of 1,400 residents.

``It almost looks like a volcano has erupted. There is so much ash and so much smoke _ miles and miles of it,'' CDF spokeswoman Olivia Luke said.

A 34-year-old man was in custody on an arson charge, accused of starting the fire with a match inserted inside a cigarette.