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Ojai: It Survived a Nightmare and Didn’t Forget the Heroes

Times Staff Writer

Larry Schmitt’s firefighting crew once saved a house by building a ditch around the property. The owner sued the state because the crew did not refill the ditch after the house was out of danger.

Schmitt led another crew that kept a forest fire from spreading to a small town. City officials sued because the bulldozers used to cut fire lines marked up the town’s roads.

Schmitt, squad leader of a firefighting crew from Wisconsin--one of many out-of-state units recently called in to battle California fires, is accustomed to being sued, chastised or ignored while serving the public. He was not prepared for the kind of response that Ojai residents gave firefighters who have been camped on the edge of town since July 2, when a brush fire almost destroyed the town.

From the beginning of Ojai Avenue to the fire camp site at Soule Park, banners thanking the firefighters are affixed to trees, fences, businesses and homes. Throughout the fire camp, hundreds of thank-you notes are tacked to bulletin boards.

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So many residents have offered the use of their swimming pools to off-duty firefighters that the camp had to appoint a “swimming pool coordinator” to arrange transportation to the homes. And each day, about 10 truckloads of food donated by residents is delivered to the camp. About 50 volunteers from the town were needed to deliver and serve the cookies, cakes and pies made by residents and to handle the crates of oranges and grapefruits donated by grateful orchard owners whose groves were saved by the firefighters.

“They saved our town and we wanted to thank them,” said Ted Fleming, who organized the baked goods drive. “They worked so hard and put their lives on the line for a few dollars, and we wanted to show the appreciation of the community. Everyone in town was dying to say thanks, but didn’t know how.”

The residents are grateful, Fleming said, partly because the town was so close to being destroyed. During the night of July 2 and early morning hours of July 3, firefighters made a dramatic stand at the north edge of Ojai when the fire was only a few blocks from the town center. Only a few homes were destroyed that night, and firefighters kept the blaze from spreading into the town.

About 1,500 people in the city of 7,000 have given baked foods or fresh fruit to show their appreciation, Fleming said. The bake drive began July 7, and each day since then the camp has been deluged with food--about a ton a day, Fleming estimated.

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The camp has received hundreds of telephone calls from people offering assistance, a Forest Service information officer said. An Ojai merchant donated the use of a large-screen television and videotaped movies. Local motels have offered free rooms and showers. Residents of a convalescent hospital made lunches. A banker told camp officials that he would cash checks for the firefighters. The Ojai City Council presented firefighters with resolutions of appreciation.

“I’ve been fighting fires all over the United States for 30 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Chuck Mills of the U.S. Forest Service, an incident commander at the Wheeler fire, which has burned more than 116,000 acres since it threatened Ojai. “Day after day, they’re always finding something to do for us.”

Patrick Hansen, a firefighter from El Dorado, Calif., worked 115 hours last week, cutting fire lines in blazing hot canyons and on treacherous hillsides. Hansen, carrying a towel and wet swim trunks, had a rare afternoon off and had just returned from a swimming party hosted by an Ojai resident.

“We’ve worked 150 hours overtime since we got here and everyone was down in the dumps,” he said. “The swimming was a real morale boost. It’s not so hard to go back out there when you know people appreciate what you’re doing.”

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Would Have Been Tough

Without all the amenities provided by the Ojai residents, life in the fire camp would have been grim, Hansen said. The camp is located in a county park adjacent to a golf course and was designed for utility, not comfort. Most firefighters work 24-hour shifts, return to camp, line up for showers, eat breakfast at a picnic table and then roll out their sleeping bags in a shady spot and try to sleep, despite the heat.

The site resembles a military encampment readying for a major assault. The entire camp, a self-contained city that provides food, equipment and direction for the firefighters, was built literally overnight.

On the afternoon of July 1, Forest Service officials were informed that a potentially catastrophic fire had broken out near Ojai. At 4 the next morning, the camp was in operation, and a kitchen crew served breakfast to firefighters.

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“We simply superimposed a city on top of the incident,” a camp spokesman said.

Ventura County Site

At 3 p.m. the day the fire began, Jerry Newton, a fleet manager for the U.S. Forest Service in San Bernardino, was told he would be responsible for setting up the camp. Newton first called Ventura County to secure a site. He then contacted the Forest Service’s regional headquarters in Arcadia and began to order equipment.

“I had to get shower units, firefighting equipment, a communications network . . .,” he said. “I had to establish a motor pool, security, sanitation and everything else you need to instantly take care of thousands of firefighters. Twelve hours after the first call, we had a camp for 1,400 firefighters.”

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The camp later expanded to accommodate a peak of about 3,000 men and women. The firefighters, divided into units, set up their packs and sleeping bags under trees at the edge of the park. At the center of the camp is a ring of trailers where the fight against the fire is plotted, where firefighters are deployed and where equipment is dispatched.

Map of the Fire

On the wall of the “Situation Trailer,” the path of the fire is outlined in red on a large plastic map. And each morning at 3 a.m., when the shift changes, the incident commanders meet and make decisions for the day’s battle.

The “Long Range Planning Trailer” is known as “what-if headquarters,” a forest service spokesman said. If the winds change, or if smaller fires are set nearby, or if the fire changes direction, contingency plans are ready, he said.

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Inside other trailers decisions about manpower, transportation needs and supply capabilities are made. There are mobile units for showers, a Red Cross center for medical treatment, portable basins with running water and food service units.

Many of the firefighters at the camp are from out of state, far from their families, and have lived amid the Spartan conditions for almost two weeks. The enthusiastic response by Ojai residents, firefighters said, has helped assuage the feelings of isolation.

Almost half the 10,000 firefighters who were battling brush fires throughout the state were from outside California, said a fire service spokesman. They represented 20 states and were called in to reinforce the California crews. The last time California needed so much assistance was in 1980 during a fire in the San Bernardino area, when 280 homes were destroyed, a Forest Service spokesman said.

“When you’re this far from home it’s nice when people try to make you feel welcome,” said Larry Schmitt of Blue River, Wis. “It makes you feel like you’ve done something worthwhile--like you’ve just slayed the dragon.”

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