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November 10, 2003

Three UCSC firefighters join battle against historic conflagration

By Jennifer McNulty

UCSC firefighter Britten Miles has a new pillow. Decorated with colorful hand-drawn hearts and clouds, it says “Firemen are Earth Angels” and “Sweet Dreams.”

UCSC firefighters Britten Miles (left), Capt. Don Brookes, and Coleen Canright-Ulrich work on the Cedar Fire in San Diego County, above. Below, Miles (left), Canright-Ulrich, and Brookes grab a cup of coffee at the end of their shift in the town of Julian. They tapped the hydrant to fill the 500-gallon water tank on their engine before returning to base camp for the night.

Donated by a grateful resident of the San Diego area, the pillow seems to sum up the sentiments of Southern California’s fire victims following last month’s devastating blazes.

Responding to a call for assistance from state fire officials, the UCSC Fire Department contributed three firefighters and an engine to a five-engine “task force” from Santa Cruz County that convoyed south to the Cedar fire east of San Diego late Monday, October 27.

Fourteen people died and the fire burned more than 280,000 acres before it was contained. Thousands of firefighters from across the western United States converged on the conflagration, which destroyed more than 2,200 homes.

Engineer Miles drove the campus’s off-road engine all night with firefighter Coleen Canright-Ulrich and Capt. Don Brookes to get to the fire. “No one wants bad things to happen, but if they’re going to happen, we want to be there to help out,” said Miles.

The Santa Ana winds that had whipped up the fire in its first days had died down by the time the UCSC team arrived, and Miles, Canright-Ulrich, and Brookes were assigned to a base camp of 4,000 firefighters in the city of Santee.

“The ash was so thick, it looked like a gray, drizzly day, but it smelled like a campfire,” said Miles. “The cars had a layer of ash on them that looked like a light dusting of snow.”

Protecting homes in the town of Descanso, the team got its share of smoke and flames. But it was only at base camp that the firefighters got a sense of how big the fire actually was.

The banana slug logo on the UCSC fire truck attracted attention in southern California.

“There would be 100 fire trucks lined up, and I’d realize that we’d spent all day working on what was only a small part of the big picture,” said Miles. “Usually, when you’re fighting a fire, you see the entire thing. This was different.”

Everywhere they went, residents expressed gratitude. Base camp was deluged by donations of pillows, socks, toothpaste, and sleeping bags to help fend off the cold in the mountains, where overnight temperatures at the end of the week dipped into the 30s.

“People would drive by and honk and wave and give us the thumbs up,” recalled Brookes. “They were holding signs that said ‘Thank you’ on the street corners, and there were banners hanging from overpasses. It was everywhere.”

Brookes and Canright-Ulrich opened their lunches one day to find handwritten notes saying, “You are a shining star,” and “Smile!” One evening, after an exhausting day of “mopping up” the fire, the team was headed back to camp when a woman in a passing car flagged them down. “The driver stopped and yelled ‘Hot food!,’ and I’ve never seen firefighters get out of their trucks so fast,” said Miles. “She had three big steaming hot lasagnas. It was great. The people down there were incredible.”

Describing most of their work as “not particularly exciting or glamorous,” Miles conceded that fighting the fire when it was at its peak “would’ve been an experience like none other.” But the opportunity would’ve carried greater risk, and the death of Novato firefighter Steve Rucker was a painful reminder of that fact. The UCSC trio had breakfast with Rucker’s crew the day he died, and the crew heard the Novato team’s calls for help over the radio.

“We heard them calling for a helicopter, and I knew that wasn’t good,’” said Canright-Ulrich, the team member with the most experience fighting wildland fires. “Then we heard them call for two helicopters, and I just thought, ‘Oh, crud.’”

With 12- and 15-year-old sons at home, Canright-Ulrich said the hardest part of the assignment was missing her boys. “I tell them I train really hard so I’ll come home to them,” she said. “As the years go by, you get more comfortable, but it’s always scary.”

No one knew how long the team would be gone when they left town, and each firefighter called on friends and family to help cover for them. “My mom, my husband, my ex-husband--everybody just pitches in and makes it happen,” said Canright-Ulrich, one of only a “handful” of women firefighters working the Cedar fire.

Returning home November 4 after a week away, Miles found himself in debt to his roommate and parents for looking after his dogs, both of whom tangled with a skunk during his absence.

Fire Chief Chuck Hernandez said he felt a sense of pride that was “overwhelming at times,” knowing that UCSC firefighters were pitching in during the crisis.

“It reflects the campus’s firm commitment to work with our fire-service neighbors,” said Hernandez, who credited Tom Vani, vice chancellor of Business and Administrative Services, with supporting that goal. “We do a lot of training, but there’s nothing like real, live experience. You can’t get that from textbooks.”

The Cedar fire marks the second time that UCSC was able to contribute support to off-campus fires. About two months ago, Capt. Paul Babb and two firefighters helped fight lightning-caused fires that broke out in Mendocino County. Everyone in the UCSC Fire Department looks forward to “joining the bigger family” of firefighters locally and statewide.

And wherever UCSC firefighters go, the banana slug logo on their trucks always attracts admirers. “I think we definitely had the most popular logo,” said Miles.

The UCSC Fire Department will send a full engine company to the November 12 memorial service for fallen firefighter Steve Rucker.

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