Feature Story: Fire ‘n Fury – Saluting the Heroes & First Responders of the SoCal Wildfires – SoCal Life Magazine, March/April 2018

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Eric Mukes: Fire Captain, Ventura City Fire Department

At five years of age, Eric Mukes knew exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up: The Lone Ranger. After all, the guy rode around on a horse, wore a cool mask and fought outlaws. What little boy wouldn’t want to be him?

Thirty-seven years later, Captain Eric Mukes rides around on a fire engine, wears a mask and fights fires. But he would be the first to tell you he’s no Lone Ranger. He and his team of firefighters at the Ventura City Fire Department, Station #5, work as a single lifesaving unit, tackling anything that Southern California’s natural disasters—and other life threatening situations—throw at them. Never was this more true than during the recent SoCal fires, which combined, devastated approximately 369,522 acres, destroyed over a thousand structures and paved the way for the next disaster—the Montecito mudslides.

The day the Thomas Fire broke out, a team of Ventura City firefighters was dispatched to Santa Paula, where the fire originated. “We’re the ‘specialized rescuers,’” stated Eric. “So when the Thomas Fire suddenly turned and descended with full fury towards the city of Ventura, threatening Vista Del Mar hospital, that’s when my team were called in.”

Saving the hospital turned out to be a fierce firefight that lasted for hours. Eric and his men cut holes in the roof, making a way for the heat to exit before the engines came in with water. Though they couldn’t save the entire hospital, they were able to save a couple of wings—and prevented surrounding homes from being torched.

From then on, it was non-stop firefighting for Eric, who worked up to 32-hour shifts. While 427 homes in the city of Ventura were destroyed, Mukes marvels out at how many homes they managed to save. “It could have been worse—a lot worse,” Eric said. “And the fact that there was no loss of life, with one exception, is even more miraculous. I attribute this to our amazing law enforcement, as they made sure that everyone was evacuated.”

Sadly, loss of life, 20 to be exact, did occur in the ensuing Montecito mudslides, where Eric was called up for search and rescue. He came dangerously close to being the 21st victim when he fell into a sinkhole with mud up to his chest—relying on his “band of brothers” to haul him out.

The Bitter with the Sweet

When his efforts to save a victim or home fails is when Eric experiences the worst—yet also the best—part of his job. “It’s impossible to describe a situation like I had with parents who watched us do everything we could to save their child, but to no avail,” shares Eric. “They would be kissing their child on the forehead as we worked, only to turn to us after the worst possible outcome, and thank us through their tears for trying. Or to have a couple stand in front of their home that has been reduced to a chimney and yet still they thank us profusely for our efforts to save their house. That is super humbling to me. And yet it’s also, in a strange way, the best part in that we get to be there to help them bring closure to the worst possible moment of their life.”

Manny Calvario: Horse Trainer, San Luis Rey Downs

To many racing horse trainers, the thoroughbreds they train are their children. Trainer Manny Calvario, who has lived, breathed and slept horses since he was 14, is no exception. Which is why when the Lilac Fire broke out near San Luis Rey Downs Training Center, where Manny also lives, he knew he only had one recourse: to join the other trainers in letting their “children” loose in hopes that they would run away from the fire to safety.

“Everyone loves to watch horses run … but not with fear.”

Not every trainer was committed to that course of action. French trainer Martine Bellocq decided to stay put. But as the flames inched closer and closer, Manny knew it was a lost cause. “Martine, the fire is 100 feet away, you have to turn your horses loose!” he warned his fellow trainer. It was Martine’s delayed decision to finally let the last horse loose—a favorite named Wild Bill Hickory—that would turn into a fateful one. Within seconds, the flames engulfed both her and her horse. Upon hearing the screams—a sound Manny says he will never forget—he rushed into the thick black smoke and grabbed Martine, pulling her out from the fire. He then covered her in a blanket to extinguish the flames, effectively saving her life.

As for Manny, he is still processing the trauma of that day. Even speaking of it causes the tears to well up. “It was only afterwards that I realized how close I was to catching on fire myself,” he shares, his voice choking. “But you don’t think about the danger at the time—of being a so-called ‘hero’—you just do what you have to do.”

There were many heroes that emerged from the recent SoCal disasters—some celebrated, some not. Like marine Daniel Williams, who while returning from checking on his grandparents’ house, drove not away, but towards the fire descending on San Luis Rey to help lead terrified horses to safety. Or a Montecito man who rescued a baby buried in the mud. Then there were those who worked together as a “collective hero”—bringing food to victims and rescuers, providing temporary shelter, rescuing animals, starting Go Fund Me pages, or simply providing human comfort to those shattered by unimaginable loss.

Do It Afraid

When asked to share his own idea of what a “hero” is, Captain Eric Mukes has a simple definition: “Do it afraid.” “I feel fear every single time I go out there,” says Eric. “But I push through that fear because I know that my mission is benevolent and that knowledge leads to courage. I have lives to save and a family who needs me to come home to them—and that’s what gives me the courage to go in and do my job, and do it well.”

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