Do-it-yourself firefighters celebrate intact homes

Do-it-yourself firefighters celebrate intact homes

27 November 2008

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Yorba Linda, California, USA — A defiant American flag soars high over Brett Barbre’s backyard, looming over a scorched hillside that is visible from the streets below.

For Barbre and a handful of neighbors, that flag no longer just represents patriotism.

On Thanksgiving Day, standing around the homes they defended on their own, these residents see the flag as a reminder of what truly makes America great.

“Americans pull together and do things for themselves,” said Jim Tatreau, 40, who joined a half dozen of his neighbors last week to defend their street against the Freeway Complex fires that ravaged Anaheim, Yorba Linda and Brea. “It’s community,” said Tatreau as he leaned on the shovel he’s been using all week. “We didn’t talk about it, we just did it.”

Last Saturday afternoon, as fires began racing up hillsides, Brett Barbre was on the phone with his wife telling her that he was ignoring calls to evacuate and staying to defend their home because he didn’t see any fire trucks coming and 911 seemed overwhelmed. Across the street, Tatreau was putting his wife and kids into a car and staying behind as well. Mark Denney did the same, as did Sam Hwangbo and David Thaete.

Although they live in the same cul-de-sac, some had rarely even spoken. Barbre has been in the neighborhood for 14 years while others have only been living there for a year.

They all got to know each other intimately throughout the day.

Tatreau grabbed a shovel and hit the hillside besides his neighbor’s home, which was on fire. He quickly heard a shovel behind him, which was powered by Hwangbo. Across the street, Barbre and Denney were hitting their hillside with water hoses.

“There’s safety in numbers,” said Denney noting that he had a swelling sense of pride throughout the day as he defended his home.

By nightfall, as the men could look up and actually see moonlight through the fog of embers while standing around tree stumps that glowed like charcoals, they knew they had made it.

“It’s an awesome feeling,” said Tatreau, who planned on Thurday to play the photo images the men took on a large plasma screen television in his home. “We’re going to remember what we’re thankful for.”

While these men feel a sense of pride in their victory, and want to continue being active in fire preparation, volunteer firefighters have become a hot topic in Orange County.

The Orange County Fire Authority significantly scaled back its program of volunteers in 2002, arguing that the program was expensive, faced recruiting challenges and had bad response times.

That decision is increasingly coming under fire, both from volunteer firefighters – who argue the de-emphasizing of volunteers has more to do with placating unions than effectiveness – to even some OCFA board members, such as Villa Park Councilman Brad Reese.

And as more and more news stories feature themes of overwhelmed firefighters, there’s more pressure for a second look.

While OCFA Fire Chief Chip Prather doesn’t regret downsizing the volunteer firefighter program, he said the wind-driven embers caused by the Freeway Complex fires have made him consider whether the agency should embrace residents such as those in Yorba Linda who want to stay and defend their own homes.

In an interview with the Register, Prather said last week he was considering using a program from Australia called “Stay and Defend” that has significantly reduced urban structure losses from wildland fires. That program allows interested residents to get information on training as well as equipment, and as Prather said, “gets community members into the game.”

For the Yorba Linda neighbors, that’s exactly what they want. Tatreau is already looking into a pool pump to use during such fires and the others are talking about buying neighborhood firefighting equipment as well.

“A volunteer has a vested interest in their community,” Barbre said. “And the greatness of America is you do it yourself.”

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