Image: Firefighters
Fred Greaves  /  Reuters
After three days of protecting homes in San Diego County, these firefighters finally got a moment to lie down on Wednesday.
updated 10/24/2007 9:12:04 PM ET 2007-10-25T01:12:04

Forty hours after he arrived in the San Bernardino National Forest, firefighter Peter Stanton stepped gingerly over a sleeping colleague and wondered what his next assignment was going to be.

"We've been going nonstop. I kind of hope they're going to send us to sleep, but I'm pretty sure we're going back out," he said.

Fire crews, tankers and helicopters poured into Southern California on Wednesday, bringing welcome relief to firefighters exhausted by as long as four straight days of fighting unusually ferocious blazes scattered across a huge swath of Southern California.

From mountainside resorts to the shores of Malibu to the Mexican border, about 15 blazes destroyed at least 1,500 homes and threatened tens of thousands of others.

Stanton and his colleagues fought to save homes near the mountain resort area of Lake Arrowhead and at times fought to stay clearheaded as they dragged hoses and drove fire engines into infernos.

"We are hearing about people getting tired," federal Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters in San Diego, site of some of the worst fires. He added he had spoken with other authorities about "the need to rotate firefighters out," giving them time to rest.

"One of the big hazards is exhaustion, which leads to impaired judgment," Chertoff said.

In some cases, however, the tired were relieving the tired. In northern Los Angeles County, some of the fire crews that had all but contained a 38,000-acre wildfire near Santa Clarita were being dispatched to the Lake Arrowhead area.

"We have no idea how long we'll be gone for," said firefighter Al Taylor of the state Department of Forestry. "We just show up and try and have a good time."

Sleeping between assignments
He and his colleagues planned to catch some sleep on the ride to their next assignment, a little more than 100 miles away.

Firefighters are used to working to the point of exhaustion, Calipatria fire Chief Chris Hall said. He worked 35 hours straight on the Lake Arrowhead fires, got a few hours rest and then was back on the lines, helping mop up hot spots on a narrow street in Running Springs.

The firefighters take pride in the homes they've been able to save since the blazes began breaking out one after another, beginning Sunday. Some said they are frustrated that there haven't been more people and equipment to help in the fight.

"We've just been really, really short on resources," said Stanton, who arrived in the Lake Arrowhead area Monday with a team of 20 firefighters from Imperial County, east of San Diego.

A two-pronged fire there in the San Bernardino Mountains has destroyed more than 300 homes so far. Stanton told of his crew’s having to abandon one small neighborhood in Running Springs when it became obvious that flames were going to overwhelm them.

Hours later, tired and in an almost dreamlike state, he described the scene:

"It was dark, the sky was glowing, the winds were blowing fiercely and the longer we stayed, the smokier we got," he said. "The embers were getting bigger and thicker. I looked up, the entire ridge was glowing.

"You could tell the fire was coming closer and closer," he continued. "Then it hit the tops of the trees. They were popping, exploding, all in flames. The call went out to evacuate the entire command post."

He paused for a moment.

"I really haven't slept. Am I making any sense or just rambling?"

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