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Following Engine #111

Today’s 6am briefing at the Station Fire command post at Hansen Dam laid out the fire’s steady, destructive march in spite of high humidity and low winds during the night. I left soon after the briefing and before Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger arrived for a briefing and press conference.

On this day, many of the firefighters who’d seen action in La Cañada a few days before were assigned to do contingency work, or recon, that is, the prep work in case the fire ends up somersaulting over the San Gabriel mountaintops and starts wreaking havoc in the densely populated Altadena and Sierra Madre areas. Thousands of feet of fire hose needed to be laid down along trails and more brush needed clearing.

About 10 fire trucks did this work at the intersection of Lake Avenue and Loma Alta Drive, the top-most part of Altadena, elevation 1,800 feet. That’s where I met 20-year U.S. Forest Service engine Captain Bruce Steinberg. He drives engine #111. A female crewmember pointed to Bruce as the de-facto historian of this site. The Cobb Estate, Bruce tells me, used to be owned by the Marx Brothers and the Mt. Lowe Railway nearby used to ferry sightseers to the mountain’s summit a century ago.

This area’s burned plenty since then. That’s what some residents about 2 miles away told me. Mary Sorensen’s lived in the area for nearly 40 years. In 1993 the 200-foot hill across her home burned and turned some homes above her into ash. She used a garden hose to protect her house. Strong winds threw the water back on her face. To keep up on the Station Fire she’s reading some Altadena web sites, watching TV, and pokes her head out her window every so often to see the smoke coming up from behind the San Gabriel Mountains.

She’s a bit distressed and has her important documents ready to go but she’s not in panic mode yet, as she points to the top of the hill where a U.S. Forest Service fire truck sits parked. They’re the lookouts, she tells me, keeping an eye out for flare ups and hot spots. What street is that truck on, I ask. Zane Grey Terrace, she says.

After a windy climb, I find the truck at the end of the street. It’s Engine #111! Bruce Steinberg and his buddies are finishing lunch, taking it easy, under a bush that has tree aspirations. They say the 1993 fire was nasty. There are a couple of white crosses on a trail just north of here, Bruce tells me, in memory of the two firefighters who died trying to put out the flames.

Just then a breeze picks up. I ask if that’s bad news. No, Bruce says as he picks up a handful of dry leaves and they drop toward the mountain. The wind’s blowing north today and for now, that’ll keep the fire far away.