California Fire Crew Fights for Home

It was a rare lull in the storm, and the crew of Engine 31 took advantage after seven hard days on the fire line. Parked on a highway shoulder, awaiting orders, they swapped stories, snacked - even caught a few moments of coveted sleep.


JULIAN, Calif. (AP) -- It was a rare lull in the storm, and the crew of Engine 31 took advantage after seven hard days on the fire line. Parked on a highway shoulder, awaiting orders, they swapped stories, snacked - even caught a few moments of coveted sleep.

The break didn't last long. A team leader arrived with a new assignment: Head for the mountain community of Julian and save what you can. As crewman Damien Sanchez put it, it was time to do ``what we live for.''

A short while later they were back before the flames, fighting to save homes and dreams - and get a leg up on the monster beating them down.

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Like the thousands of other firefighters working around the clock to battle the California wildfires, the four men and woman who make up the crew of U.S. Forest Service Engine 31 are exhausted and frustrated but also determined.

They were dispatched from their home base at the Angeles National Forest last Wednesday to help fight a blaze at Camp Pendleton. That was before a half-dozen more fires ignited across Southern California, before tens of thousands were evacuated, before so many lives had been lost and homes destroyed.

They have been in the mountains surrounding San Diego ever since, putting in 16-hour days while working to save several hundred structures, but also finding dozens more that weren't able to be salvaged.

``This is some of the most stressful firefighting I've done,'' said Sanchez, 25, one of the veterans of the group with seven years' experience. Earlier in the week, he and his crew hopscotched from house to house in one mountain community, scurrying to remove debris and cut down trees that are gasoline to a fire. But as soon as they left one house to start work on another, flames would roar by.

``It was more than I expected. I thought we'd have a half-hour to work on a house. We had about five minutes,'' Sanchez said. ``We just didn't have any time because of the winds.''

They were back at it before sunup Tuesday, helping with a burnout operation intended to rob an oncoming blaze of more fuel. Then, it was off to Julian.

The rig followed a caravan of engines and brush trucks down a gravel road just south of the historic gold mining community of 300 people, famous for its apple trees and beautiful vistas of the Cuyamaca mountains.

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