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Do-it-yourself fire crew saves own neighborhood

A fast-moving wildfire pushed by Santa Ana winds destroyed 49 homes Sunday morning, but some neighborhood volunteers took things into their own hands.

By Bob PoolLos Angeles Times / November 26, 2007



MALIBU, Calif.

The professional firefighters did not roll up to Corral Canyon in time Saturday. So Matt Haines finally had his chance to rev up the private fire truck that he bought at a public surplus auction.

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Mr. Haines's 31-year-old pumper truck and tanker truck of similar vintage helped a do-it-yourself fire brigade save a dozen homes as flames encircled their El Nido neighborhood.

As Haines sprayed water on homes on both sides of Sequit Drive, his neighbors used their own hoses to extinguish burning embers that rained from the sky and to douse shrubs and fencing as they caught fire. As it fought the blaze, the crew could see four homes fully engulfed on Sea Breeze Drive above them.

The fire here on Saturday burned west of the portions of Malibu hit by wildfire last month. As of Sunday morning, it had destroyed 49 homes, damaged 27, and caused at least 10,000 people to be evacuated, the Associated Press reported.

But in the El Nido neighborhood, the residents seemed prepared to help themselves. Bill Raffin pulled out his portable pump and started drawing water from a swimming pool. Ken Wherry unrolled a canvas fire hose and connected it to a hydrant up the street. Kai Chan stretched out smaller garden hoses and laid them in strategic places around houses.

When the burning cinders flew over the street and set a steep canyon south of Sequit ablaze and flames shot back up the hill, Haines sprayed down houses on the south side of the street. His 750-gallon 1976 Ford fire engine performed flawlessly, he said, as did its companion truck, a 3,000-gallon tanker. Combined, the trucks cost around $6,000.

But, "we saved millions of dollars' worth of property today with those."

Haines is a general contractor who has built several of the homes along Sequit. He said he bought the firefighting equipment to protect new houses he's building.

Most residents along Sequit had evacuated when Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies drove through the area before dawn and warned that a fire was coming their way.

But those who formed Sequit's impromptu fire company stayed and fought. "If you stay, all you have to do is put out the embers when the fire goes through," said Mr. Wherry, a retired sales manager who has lived with his wife, Marguerite, on Sequit since 1991.

When flames hit Sea Breeze, above his street, Wherry said he climbed the hill and used a garden hose to save a yellow home that was about to catch fire from a nearby burning tree. "I saw a garden hose and used it to put out the tree fire," he said. "After that, the house was fine."

Back down on Sequit, there was disappointment when the stay-behind residents tried to use their own canvas fire hoses: They burst from the high pressure of the fire hydrants. Those who stayed behind, said Marguerite Wherry, a real estate agent, protected 11 houses on Sequit – including one that nearly ignited two hours after the fire burned through the area. Hundreds of firefighters and equipment from throughout the state had been positioned in southern California for most of the week because of the predicted Santa Ana winds.

"I called the Fire Department at 8:20 and said El Nido was burning and no fire trucks were here. They said they were trying to get up here," Mrs. Wherry said. The only house on Sequit that burned was a home at the corner of Sequit and Sea Breeze that was out of range of Haines's fire hose.

After hours of work, Haines maneuvered his fire truck up a hill in the hope of protecting some storage containers he owns. His pumper truck ran dry, and his tanker truck was a quarter of a mile away. Soon, the containers' contents, including antique furniture, ignited.

"I ran out of water. That's why I didn't get the fire out in time," he said.

"But you know something? I'm blessed. We all are."

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