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Death Toll of 2 Is Low for Such Huge Fires : Casualties: Resident in Santa Barbara and firefighter in Hemet are only deaths reported. Smaller fires in the past have claimed more lives.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Andrea Gurka tried to outrun the wall of flames that raced up Old San Marcos Pass Road on Wednesday night, consuming her home and hundreds of others along the winding mountain canyon.

She made it to the creek bed, but no further. A search-and-rescue team found the 37-year-old woman’s body there Friday morning.

In Riverside County, Victor Ferrera, 23, of San Diego, an inmate-firefighter from a Department of Corrections camp, was among a 17-member crew overrun by flames Wednesday afternoon near Hemet when a whirling wind suddenly shifted the brush fire they were fighting. Ferrera died of his injuries the next day.

For all the huge destruction wrought by fire this week, there have been surprisingly few deaths. So far, Gurka and Ferrera are the only ones reported in the massive blazes that swept from Santa Barbara to San Diego.

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Ironically, smaller fires have frequently resulted in higher death tolls. For instance, the 1985 Baldwin Hills fire in Los Angeles, which destroyed 48 homes, killed three people. Ten people died in the 1970 fire that raged from Newhall to Malibu, destroying more than 400 homes.

Fire officials attribute the low death toll in this year’s fires, which consumed thousands of acres and more than 500 homes, to a combination of improved training, public education, interagency coordination--and luck.

“You have the best of your training and you put it into effect when emergencies like this come up--sometimes you’re fortunate and other times you’re not,” said Cindy Webster, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service and Santa Barbara County public agencies. “This time, our investment paid off and we’re grateful.”

Training in recent years among fire-fighting agencies, including those serving Glendale and Santa Barbara--two of the hardest-hit areas in this week’s fires--has increasingly focused on safety, officials said.

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“We stress safety more now than we did perhaps 10 years ago,” said Capt. Al Kepler, a spokesman for the Glendale Fire Department. City firefighters are subjected to more intense and longer training, which continues even after firefighters are on the job, he said.

“I’m not surprised by the low death toll, not with the training we’re given,” he added.

Firefighters often are shown pictures and videotapes of fires where something went wrong and tragedy resulted, Webster said.

“The training is very realistic, even grim,” she said. “We see the mistakes that people have made that have gotten them killed, and we learn from them.”

Webster added that interagency emergency planning efforts have also helped in reducing the chaos that can lead to injury or death. Various agencies, including state forestry, county and city fire protection departments, have also stepped up public safety campaigns in recent years in the Santa Barbara area, she said. Residents have been bombarded with leaflets, radio public service announcements and presentations at homeowners’ association meetings, she added.

“It’s really made a difference,” she said.

Still, given the severity of the wind-swept fires that destroyed entire neighborhoods in the Santa Barbara area, Webster said “it’s amazing” that more people weren’t killed in the blaze.

In Glendale, where a fast-moving blaze destroyed 46 homes before the fire was brought under control Wednesday night, officials were grateful that the fire began during daylight hours and that it occurred in an area with easy access to fire equipment and for the evacuation of residents.

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“The potential for injury is much greater in the dark and when people may be sleeping,” said Kepler, adding: “I guess luck explains the low injury rate as well as anything.”

Luck, however, bypassed Gurka and Ferrera.

The last anyone heard from Gurka was when she called her husband at work to tell him the flames were quickly approaching their home. She was without a car and was unsure of what to do, according to Fire Department officials. A search and rescue team went looking for her after her husband reported her missing.

Ferrera, one of seven children of a San Diego metal worker and his wife, had been in minor trouble with the law over drugs since he was a kid, a Department of Corrections official said. He was serving his first long-term sentence--this time for an armed robbery while high on drugs--at the Bautista Conservation Camp in Hemet.

Counselers at the camp said he was well-behaved and “kind of a quiet guy,” the spokesman said.

Hernandez reported from Los Angeles and Dunn from Santa Barbara.


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