It has been nearly a year since Intermountain Fire/Rescue Chief Cary Coleman stepped outside the station east of Ramona and smelled smoke.
“I went to stand outside at 12:42,” said Coleman, recalling Oct. 21, 2007. “I smelled smoke and heard the call go out at the same time.”
Witch Fire first responders from the Intermountain department took only seven minutes to arrive at the blaze. The fire was already “jumping the road” as the all-volunteer engine company pulled up.
Facing winds in excess of 40 mph, the firefighters “could not get ahead of it,” but instead stayed with the flame front in an attempt to protect homes and lives. By 7 p.m., said Coleman, the force of the winds faced by firefighters in some locations were in excess of 100 miles per hour — the equivalent of a category 2 hurricane.
Battalion Chief John Boyer stood defending Station No. 85 when the fire came through. Boyer and a crew of four — one from Station 85, one who came from Shelter Valley to help, and two trainees from Julian-Cuyamaca Fire — cut a line around the station as the fire bore down, ripping through the area with gale-force winds. The small crew was alone with only the water truck for ten minutes.
“Once the call was out that the station was threatened,” said Boyer, “the other engines in the area came over to help.”
The firebreak held, and the flames continued around the building. By mid-afternoon, reinforcements numbering about 35 arrived to help.
Local fire crews fought on as firefighters from across the state answered the call in an attempt to gain control of the growing inferno. During the fight to save Station 85, the building housed 10 civilians who evacuated their homes and could not get up or down the road.
With few windows, the people inside the building were unable to watch the heroes beyond the walls.
“Eventually, we housed about 25 people in all for about 24hours until the roads cleared and they could be escorted out,” said Boyer.
An American Red Cross and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) station was set up at the site, providing hot meals, supplies, equipment and help for two to three weeks after the fire. In preparation for the next disaster, Station 85 at 25858 state Route 78 has emergency relief supplies on site.
It is the first responders in many life-threatening situations who make the difference between control and chaos.
Intermountain Fire/Rescue, headquartered at Station No. 85, is a 100 percent volunteer fire department that services areas in Ramona covered by the Cal Fire firefighters funded by the Ramona Municipal Water District (RMWD).
RMWD covers 75 square miles. Intermountain volunteers cover the rest of the community east of town in its 125-mile area that also borders Julian, Lake Henshaw and Palomar Mountain. In the case of the wildfires in the backcountry, volunteers are the backbone of first-response teams.
Intermountain’s station was built with federal and Indian grant money and help from county Supervisor Dianne Jacob.
Intermountain provides basic life support services and has an automatic external defibrillator for medical emergencies. Transport services to hospitals are provided either by neighboring agencies or air ambulance.
Twenty-three new volunteers graduated Intermountain Fire/Rescue Department’s Academy Five class in ceremonies in the Charles R. Nunn Performing Arts Center on Hanson Lane on Saturday.
“I believe a firefighter’s first act of bravery is to decide that it is their duty and obligation to act for those who cannot,” Chief Coleman said, discussing the heart and character of a firefighter at the event. “It is a position of public faith and trust.”
Coleman’s description of a code of honor, courage and commitment made clear that the expectations of those in the profession are above and beyond average.
“Technical skills of being a firefighter can be taught,” said Coleman. “These values you had to bring with you.”
Though academy recruits are volunteers, the training provided is the same given to paid firefighters.
Training and equipment are provided and donated through the generosity of sponsors. Fire Etc. has “been a big supporter” of the academy for a number of years, providing a large supply of training equipment, said Coleman. Cal Fire has helped train management and engine crews, and San Diego County has provided a training budget as part of its consolidation program. San Diego County Fire Authority, Intermountain’s Board of Directors, and Intermountain firefighters and personnel add to the quality training for the new recruits coming in, said Coleman.
The academy’s quality would not be possible without the funds, equipment, time and expertise provided through the various agencies, said Boyer.
“The support is crucial for training purposes from the various agencies,” he said. “The academy would definitely be smaller and much more difficult to run as many people through the program we do. Without the volunteer instructors coming in, we would have had to go out and hire an instructor and pay to teach some of these classes.”
Brandon Szafraniec described the tedious process to become part of the all-volunteer Station No. 85.
“There are multiple physical agility tests, oral review boards, written tests, interviews with captains and chiefs, and background checks,” he said.
It has been 22 weeks since the class began in mid-May. With a beginning class of 30, the final graduating class had 23 for various reasons. Most recruits agree “you don’t get in it for the money,” but for Nicholas Swift, the passion began at a young age.
“I was in the fourth grade,” explained Swift, “and a neighbor had a brush fire in her backyard. We smelled it and my brother and I rode our bikes down to her house. We grabbed a couple of buckets and a hose and had the fire put out before the actual fire department got there.
“I was hooked. There is a certain amount of honor that goes into the career. Helping people out — I think it’s the greatest job in the world and I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
All but one of the graduates declared the program to be the beginning toward a career with a paid company.
Jim Sinclair stands apart from the rest, noticeable by the salt-and-pepper hair and obvious age difference. The oldest of the graduating recruits, Sinclair was a construction superintendent until the housing industry fell apart.
“I’m the oldest one here,” said Sinclair, “but it’s not a matter of age. It is about dedication. I always wanted to be a firefighter. When I lost my job I decided to do it.”
Far from being “just an older guy,” however, Sinclair won the gold medal at the world powerlifting competition in Alberta, Canada, last year. Giving up a chance at this year’s competition to fulfill a dream, Sinclair is pinning hopes on being hired to drive an engine soon.
With a Class A license, Sinclair is already ahead of some peers in the program. Regardless of circumstance, Sinclair quietly admits a desire to give back and make a difference.
“I would like to drive an engine, but I am here because I believe in giving back to the community wherever I can,” he said. “ This is a way for me to do that.”
In a profession where prayers go up in hopes for services unneeded, firefighters continue to answer the calls when disaster strikes. Without warning, lives may be lost in a valiant attempt to preserve that of another. This is known and accepted as each call is answered.
“You are working in a profession without compensation that many would not, regardless of how much they were paid, and that shows a dedication and commitment toward the safety of your fellow man that cannot be bought with money,” said Coleman. “Never forget where you came from and always remember: Volunteers are not paid, because they are priceless.”