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Volumes Saved From Trash Heap : Firefighters Rescue Books for Fallbrook

Times Staff Writer

Orange County fire Captains Phil Wojcik and Larry Webb were wrapping up a routine inspection at a Mission Viejo bookstore recently when they spotted them--92 boxes of brand-new books stacked high in a cramped storage room.

“My first thought was, ‘Hey, this might be a fire hazard,’ ” Wojcik recalled. “But then the manager told us they were reducing inventory and that the books were on their way out.”

On their way out? “As in headed for the trash bin.”

Later that day, Webb heard on the news that an arson fire had gutted the San Diego County library in Fallbrook, causing $1 million in damages and destroying 30,000 books. A few phone calls later, and presto--the firefighter had made a match.

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“It seemed like an appropriate thing to do--work out the donation of all these new books to a library that’s having to start from scratch,” Webb said. “This won’t fill all their needs, but it’s a start.”

On Monday, Webb and Wojcik journeyed from Station 9 in Mission Viejo to join fellow firefighters from Fallbrook in a bucket brigade of sorts outside a temporary storage annex of the library. Instead of passing buckets of water and battling flames, the firefighters and a dozen other volunteers teamed up to hand box after box of books down the line.

In addition to the more than 3,000 assorted volumes--valued at $14,720--donated by the Mission Viejo Mall’s Waldenbooks outlet, a ton and a half of used books arrived Monday courtesy of the San Diego Salvation Army.

“This is wonderful,” exclaimed a gleeful county library spokeswoman, Nancy St. John, as she watched the boxes pour forth from trucks and vans into the hands of the firefighters. “Just look at all those books!”

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Indeed, there were lots of books, everything from “The Cosmosphere” by Carl Sagan to a volume on “Herbs: How to Select, Grow and Enjoy Them,” and a photography manual titled “Do It in the Dark.”

“We’ll be picking through all of these today and tomorrow to decide which we’ll keep for the library,” St. John said. Those rejected will be sold at a daylong book fair on Saturday to raise money to help rebuild and restock the Fallbrook library.

More than 30,000 books and numerous irreplaceable historical mementos--including microfilm on local settlers--were destroyed in the April 1 fire, the largest and costliest blaze in recent Fallbrook history. But the loss went deeper than that for this hilly community of strawberry fields and avocado groves.

“In a small, unincorporated town like this, the library is really the cultural center, a gathering place for many citizens,” said Dennis Casteel, a Fallbrook Fire Department battalion chief and vice president of the Chamber of Commerce. “So when it went, everybody felt it.”

Darryl Ray Mick, 18, was arrested near the scene of the predawn fire shortly after it broke out. Fire investigators said the young Fallbrook man apparently had been despondent over his recent firing from a job at a North County convalescent home.

Mick has pleaded innocent to charges that he set the library fire and two dumpster fires and broke windows at several banks.

Public support of the county’s effort to restore library service to tiny Fallbrook has been overwhelming, St. John said. The Friends of the Library group in Carlsbad has donated $1,000 on behalf of the Fallbrook branch, and the San Diego Booksellers Assn., a merchants group, has pledged $500. Other area libraries have offered book loans.

Meanwhile, county officials are seeking a temporary home in leased space for the Fallbrook library. They hope to conclude their search this week, St. John said. Since the fire, Fallbrook residents have been served by a county bookmobile.

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