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Missing family milestones to protect Mi-Wuk Village

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Missing family milestones to protect Mi-Wuk Village

Manteca Captain Keith Scott, center, goes over the plan to check property on Pine Lake Dive along Highway 108 with Fire Engineer Derek George, left, Manteca firefighter Mike Loomis, back, and Mante...

HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin

POSTED August 27, 2013 1:58 a.m.

MI-WUK VILLAGE – Manteca Fire Captain Keith Scott clutched an incident map, referencing it as the morning briefing unfolded beneath the shade of a pine tree.

Miles away, through the forest and beyond the Tuolumne River, a battle waged between good and evil. Nearly 3,000 firefighters have been called from all corners of the map to this stretch of the Mother Lode to put an end to the Rim Fire’s historic path of destruction.

The Rim Fire has charred nearly 161,000 acres, blackening parts of picturesque Yosemite National Park, further underscoring its legacy as one of the largest wildland fires in state history.

It has jumped in every direction, climbed through the tree tops and washed over pine needles. Firefighting efforts have struggled with the Gold Country’s steep terrain and the fire’s odd behavior. They had only achieved 20 percent containment, according to a Cal Fire tweet Monday night.

“It doesn’t compare to anything I’ve ever seen,” said San Joaquin County strike team leader Andy Kellogg, a member of the Tracy Fire Department.

Here, though, in this mountain town along Highway 108 no bigger than an eye-blink, a different confrontation develops.

There are very few signs of distress, other than the smoke that fills the air. Ash collects in spots on decks and spider webs and roof tops. Smoke bellows on the horizon.

The 30 or so firefighters that assembled in the parking lot of Diamond Jim’s steakhouse Monday morning weren’t there to put out flames.

They were there to prevent the Rim Fire from ever making a run at the vacation getaways and homes in Mi-Wuk Village.

• • •

Making hearts proud

The San Joaquin County strike team under Kellogg’s command is comprised of four-man crews from Manteca, Tracy, Lodi, Woodbridge and Stockton.

Manteca Fire strike team members Scott, Derek George, Armando Blanco and Mike Loomis have been fighting the Rim Fire since Wednesday evening.

Though they haven’t put water to a single flame, their work has been instrumental in protecting structures in Tuolumne City and Mi-Wuk Village.

The four have been commissioned to work 24-hour cycles. Their work days are spent mostly on patrol, visiting the homes and residents within their designated quadrant. They walk door to door in turnouts, helmets and tool packs, assessing the defensibility of each structure.

If need be, they’ll clean pine needles from rooftops, move wood and other combustible items and address any concerns a resident might have.

On Monday, they were assigned to the country club area of Mi-Wuk Village, where they happened by Dick and Louise Hayes loading their recyclables into plastic bags.

Louise Hayes built their single-story. ranch-style home in 1965 and has lived there ever since. The home, with its large decorative squirrels on the exterior walls, survived a mandatory fire evacuation 15 years ago.

“We got run out of here in 1988 when the fire came running over the mountain. It was pretty hairy,” Dick Hayes said in between hoarse coughs. The smoke has aggravated his bronchitis, forcing him onto his nebulizer.

“We had to make a choice. We had boxes in our bedroom ready to shove into our vehicles.”

The Hayeses hope the Rim Fire won’t force them into anymore tough decisions. The presence of firefighting crews in their neighborhood has eased tension and fears, though they raised concerns about their neighbor’s hip-high weeds.

“It makes my heart proud, because I know they’d rather be at home with their families,” Dick Hayes said. “Instead they’re up here taking care of me.”

• • •

‘Where you want to be’

Their commitment can’t be understated.

Besides sleeping on outdoor cots for four of the five nights at the Tuolumne City base camp and showering every other day, Manteca Fire’s fearless have also managed with limited contact from family and friends.

Their sacrifices back home are notable, too.

George has already missed two major milestones and may miss another. His wedding anniversary was Sunday and his youngest daughter began her first day of her senior year at Humboldt State Monday.

What’s more, his oldest daughter is expecting a baby any day now.

Loomis has received periodic updates about his baby, as well – a German Shepherd named Sammy. The pup has been staying with his parents in Lathrop. His last text was of her clutching a leash between her jaws, sitting anxiously by the door.

“She wants to go home,” he said.

Blanco and Scott also have families with young children. Scott’s children cheered on the crew as they departed Oakdale, running alongside the engine.

To a man, this fire fight is personal.

“It’s hard for our families,” Scott said. “They’re used to us being gone for just a couple of days at a time. Most of us have kids, so it’s tough. Seeing the bigger picture and helping out these families, it’s a good feeling.”

Still, they long to be on the fire line, battling what Kellogg called an “epic” and “career” blaze. The Rim Fire already ranks among the top-10 wildland fires in state history – and it has shown little sign of slowing down.

On Monday afternoon, as a fire crested and rolled down a ridge just three miles away, the San Joaquin County strike team collected in a clearing and watched with bated breath as their brethren fought the battle from the air and ground.

Some used binoculars, pointing out the helicopters navigating through the smoke.

Others listened carefully to the chatter over the walkie-talkie.

“The longer the time not spent on the front line,” Kellogg said, “the more antsy and frustrated they usually get.  No one’s feeling that way at all. It’s not boots-on-the-ground fire-fighting, but everything has been productive to the incident.”

Scott and his crew embrace the bigger picture.

As a helicopter buzzed overhead, they sauntered back up the driveway to Pine Lake Drive, where their rig waited in another driveway.

Their fire fight began with a turn of a key and the rumble of the engine.

“You want to protect homes and people,” he said. “This is where you want to be.”

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