ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
This week, a 12-man strike team of firefighters, battling the Santiago fire near San Diego, nearly became casualties themselves. The men got trapped some 70 feet up a steep hillside. Their water hose is burned and useless. So the team did the last thing they could do - hunker down under fire-proof bags as the flames engulfed them.
I spoke earlier with Captain Doug Dodge, one of the men in the charge of the strike team. He set the scene.
Captain DOUG DODGE (Orange County Fire Authority): We have escape routes, and we have people on the ground, on the street who were our lookouts, and they were notifying us that we were getting more spot fires below our position. And so that kind of eliminated one additional escape route that we had.
We're in a burned-out area. That means the fire had just moved through there. And our secondary means of escape, which was down this cliff base, had some fire on it, but it was so steep. We've kind of decided that people would get hurt, so another captain and myself kind of had a hundredths of a second decision that we should deport our shelter.
SEABROOK: And these are things that you carry on your belts, right? I saw a diagram of this.
Capt. DODGE: Yeah. They're a foil-type - kind of like those emergency blankets that used to be popular you'd throw on the back of your trunk, same kind of material.
SEABROOK: Oh, space blankets, which looks like aluminum foil.
Capt. DODGE: Right. And there's no metal and they are just loose fabric and they're A-shaped and they've got some flaps on them. What you do is kind of throw them over your head, step into them, dropped down on the ground in a spread eagle, face down and then kind of hold the sides down. And they're designed to let the fire go over the top of you, you know, they're silvered so they can reflect the heat away.
SEABROOK: So basically, it's like pulling out a very thin sleeping bag, wrapping yourself in it and throwing yourself on the ground.
Capt. DODGE: Yeah. That would be a good description.
SEABROOK: And then you lie there as the flames pass over you.
Capt. DODGE: Correct.
SEABROOK: How long?
Capt. DODGE: Well, we just listened to the tapes and we were inside for 18 minutes.
SEABROOK: So you lay there with fire on you for 18 minutes.
Capt. DODGE: Well, fire heating through us. You know, we are in direct flame impingement, but the flames do hitch, and they're moving, and the winds are driving on them. You know, if we don't have those, yeah, we could had direct flame on our skin and on our clothing, you know.
SEABROOK: What were you thinking?
Capt. DODGE: Well, really didn't put too much thought into it. There was a couple of moments of, well, how long is this going to take. They were calling in helicopter support to drop water on us. That kind of seemed like it was taking longer, not that it did, it's just like anything when you're expecting something to happen quickly. It doesn't happen as quickly, as you think it should. But they were actually - they're pretty quickly.
SEABROOK: But at some point, you must have wondered if you would make it through this.
Capt. DODGE: Well, shelters have been updated, and some of the guys had a brand new shelters, and I happened to have one of the older ones. It doesn't mean that it's any less safer. But the older ones, they used to send out memos that they have little pinholes in them. And don't worry about it. The shelter will still work as it's supposed to. I looked up, it looked like a Milky Way, only red glow through those little pinholes. And I just said to myself, boy, I hope to write about that so.
SEABROOK: So they told you, at some point, okay, come on out.
Capt. DODGE: Yeah. A hand crew had a cut a line from the road. A hand crew is a wild land firefighter crew - 15-20 people and they just cut about a dozer a wide swath up through the burned material to give us a safe path. It was nice to see their faces when you stand up out of there.
SEABROOK: And then what? Did you, at that point, go straight to the hospital or�
Capt. DODGE: No, we walked down the 75 feet to where we initially started our hose line back down to our anchor point. They had a medical team standing and waiting for us. And they took our vitals, got us some water and then they took us off the hill and got us dinner.
SEABROOK: That must have been a good dinner.
Capt. DODGE: It was pizza, but it was okay.
SEABROOK: Okay. Doug Dodge is a captain with the Orange County Fire Authority. He joined us from the Laguna Hills Fire Station 22 in Laguna Hills, California.
Thank you very much for talking here.
Capt. DODGE: Sure. Sure.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.