(AP) – As the roaring wall of flame raged through the Angeles National Forest, firefighters Ted Hall and Arnie Quinones worked feverishly to protect their fire-crew camp, made up mostly of prison inmates.
But all too suddenly, the fire invaded the campsite. Hall and Quinones shepherded 55 inmates and several corrections and fire personnel into a cinderblock dining hall to shelter them from the blaze.
The fire burned through the camp, leaving it in ruins. The dining hall provided adequate shelter for now, but Hall and Quinones knew they had to get everyone to safety. So they jumped in an engine truck and left to search for an escape route down Mount Gleason.
It proved a fatal move.
Smoke blanketed a winding road that is perilous in the best of conditions. The truck careened off the blacktop, tumbling as it plunged 800 feet down the steep mountainside. The vehicle crashed upside down, killing the two men.
The fire they had tried to outrun quickly caught up to them and left the truck a scorched hulk – a reminder that death lives in the shadows of firefighting.
Quinones, 35, leaves behind a pregnant wife who is due to give birth to the couple’s first child in the next few weeks. Hall, 47, had a wife and two adult sons.
The deaths, the second and third of firefighters in the line of duty in California this year, have shaken the ranks of men and women battling the 105,000-acre fire. Morale is dim and the mood somber.
“It hits home,” said Los Angeles Fire Capt. Sam Padilla. “This morning my daughter hugged me a little tighter than usual.”
The department is sending a crisis management team to the camps that worked closely with Hall and Quinones in the Air and Wildland Division, and will hold a memorial service later this week at the firefighters’ staging camp.
“They were selfless,” said Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “They put others’ safety ahead of their own.”
Neighbors and colleagues described both men as devoted to their families and their jobs.
Hall lived with his wife Katherine in Oak Hills, a rural area of San Bernardino County where homes sit on 2.5-acre lots. His sons – Randall, 21, and Steven, 20 – and his parents live nearby, neighbors said.
Quinones lived in Palmdale with his pregnant wife Loressa.
The deaths also hit firefighters who have come from around the state to pitch in.
Fremont Fire Capt. Rick Cory, 41, said he immediately called home to let his family know he was safe. “It was pretty shocking,” he said. “But it’s part of the job. Bad things happen even if you do everything right.”
Wildfires pose particular challenges for firefighters because of the rugged terrain and narrow access roads. Firefighters often have limited access to oxygen tanks, and toil in close proximity to flames that are notoriously unpredictable