Apodaca: 100 years of fiery heroism

In the wee morning hours of Jan. 11, 1975, a police officer noticed smoke billowing from a block-long building on Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach.

Firefighters were on the scene within three minutes, but it was already too late. The row of storefronts, which housed a cable company, a bank, a ski shop and other businesses, was engulfed in flames.

Desperate to prevent the inferno from spreading, firefighters were stymied when they discovered that water pressure from nearby hydrants wasn't sufficient. They tried to pull water from the bay, but that attempt proved cumbersome and inadequate. Finally, two fireboats pulled up to the seawall across the highway and pumped saltwater into hoses. The fire was extinguished many hours later.

An entire city block was reduced to a pile of charred rubble. Firefighters never stood a chance because the flames had raced unhindered through an attic that spanned the full length of the building.

Al Haskell was a young firefighter, one of many who responded to the call that day, and he remembers like it was yesterday every detail of what became known as the Mariner's Mile fire. At one point, he helped the ski shop owners try to retrieve items from their safe inside the building. The heat was so intense it forced them to run back out without even taking the time to close the safe door.

Haskell, who retired more than 17 years ago, was one of a few past and present Newport Beach firefighters who shared their thoughts with me as the department prepares to commemorate its centennial this year.

The celebration kicks off with a pancake breakfast and open house from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at the Santa Ana Heights station. The public is welcome.

The centennial "is a big deal for me," said Capt. Rob Beuch, a 30-year veteran who is coordinating the events. "To hit this milestone is huge, professionally and emotionally."

For the rest of us, the occasion provides an opportunity to show our appreciation for these devoted but often unheralded public servants. The general goodwill toward firefighters in the aftermath of 9/11 seems to have dissipated in recent years as cash-strapped local governments wrestle with cutbacks. Those are thorny issues that won't be resolved easily, but they shouldn't detract from the gratitude we should all feel for people who save lives for a living.

I should disclose here that I have a major soft spot for firefighters. My father-in-law, a man I love dearly, is a retired Los Angeles County fire captain, and I know how committed these public safety workers are to their mission.

So Beuch and Haskell were preaching to the choir when they told me what it means to be a firefighter: the desire to help others, the sense of being part of something important and the camaraderie among colleagues.

I spoke with the old-timers as we watched the current crop of rookies drill for their upcoming six-month test. The seven young men practiced a variety of procedures, from donning protective clothing and equipment in less than two minutes to setting up ladders. They were fast, competent and motivated.

They know they must be prepared because firefighting in Newport Beach is still a treacherous business. The city is a highly diverse mix of high-rises, brush-filled canyons, tightly packed beach communities and difficult-to-access islands. What's more, the risks from hazardous materials have grown enormously, requiring extensive training in the treatment and disposal of fuels and chemicals.

Today's department is a far cry from the volunteer force formed April 17, 1911, after a fire ravaged the City Council Chambers. In those days, firefighters had access to a few hose reels, each holding 60-gallon water tanks. An early improvement came when the means of sounding a fire alarm — a gunshot — was replaced by a fog bell.

When Haskell joined the force in 1966, his test consisted of running an obstacle course at Costa Mesa High School. Most of the firefighters were tradesmen — electricians, carpenters, mechanics — who were paid so little they worked other jobs to make ends meet.

Over the years, advances in firefighting have dramatically improved safety. Smoke detectors and sprinklers have made a huge difference. The Mariner's Mile fire resulted in a change to ensure sufficient water pressure. The type of open attic that allowed that fire to spread so quickly is no longer permitted.

The Newport Beach department has been a trendsetter. In the 1980s it pioneered new procedures for large, multi-casualty events that involve identifying and treating victims based on the extent of their injuries. The methods have been adopted nationwide.

The department has also been a leader in public awareness and education efforts. Current employees are highly skilled in the latest search-and-rescue techniques, life-saving skills, and the use of cutting-edge equipment.

"We've evolved and become a very modern, progressive fire department," Beuch said, noting that most recruits now enter the department with college degrees under their belts.

One of the rookies took a break to talk to me for a minute. Jeremiah Martin, 33, is married and has two kids, and wanted more than anything to be a firefighter.

"I did everything I could to get this job," Martin said, adding that he wanted "something that drives you, that challenges you every day — and the fact that I was helping people."

That's just what I wanted to hear from a guy whose job is to rush toward the fire when the rest of us are running away.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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