For the Corona Fire Department, that moment came at 9:23 a.m. Saturday, 22 minutes after the first 911 call reported a small brush fire in the vegetation off the 91 Freeway.
It was a distress call from Engine 5, the first truck to attack the blaze. Using a tactical frequency, the captain of the four-person crew -- three men and a woman -- cried out to battalion chief Mike Samuels, stationed on the freeway above:
"We're completely surrounded. Send help."
From his position, Samuels could see the flames tearing through the brush toward homes, pushed by 20 mph gusts of Santa Ana winds, the fire intensifying as it struck what he called "heavy fuels" -- 8-foot-tall patches of oak and chaparral.
"I've been in the fire service 21 years, and I've never seen a fire move out that fast," Samuels would say later.
Other trucks were attacking the fire and one of them, Brush One, was heading to protect homes. Samuels decided to divert it to rescue the crew of Engine 5.
As Brush One fought its way through black smoke and heat toward the encircled firefighters, Engine 5 stayed on the radio, awaiting help and using its training to survive. A common tactic in such a situation is for firefighters to "get in the black" -- position themselves and their truck in an area that has already burned. To help, Samuels called in helicopter water drops.
The extrication of Engine 5 took 15 to 20 minutes, by Samuels' estimate, and soon the four crew members were heading to hospitals for treatment of minor burns and smoke inhalation. They were all released that day.
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