NOVATO, Calif. -- The firefighter killed when a fast-moving wildfire overtook his four-man crew as they tried to save a home was remembered at his firehouse yesterday as a hard worker dedicated to the job.
"He wasn't sent there. He asked to go," Deputy Novato Fire Chief Dan Northern said, fighting back tears as he stood beside a makeshift shrine of flowers, photos, and the gear Steve Rucker had left behind.
Rucker, 38, an 11-year veteran and a father of two, was the first firefighter killed battling the blazes that have ravaged Southern California since the Santa Ana winds began blowing through the parched hills last week. Twenty people have died in wildfires still raging in San Diego, San Bernardino, and Ventura counties.
Rucker and his crew from the Novato Fire Protection District, north of San Francisco, were in San Diego County on Wednesday fighting a wildfire that has burned more than 230,000 acres and nearly 1,100 homes.
They were trying to save a mountain home near Wynola when the fire flared up. The crew was overtaken so quickly they didn't have time to reach their engine, said Fred Batchelor, a state fire marshal. He said they tried to take refuge in the house they were trying to protect.
"It's calm one moment, and the next moment you have an explosive situation," Batchelor said. "In this case, it flared up and rolled in there and engulfed them."
One of the three surviving crew members, Captain Doug McDonald, was in critical condition yesterday with burns over 18 percent of his body. The other two, Shawn Kreps and Barrett Smith, were treated for minor burns.
In Novato, Rucker's fellow firefighters remembered their fallen colleague as they stood around the memorial in the firehouse lobby.
"We're all struggling, trying to make sense of the situation," Northern said. He said Rucker was always happy, involved in his community, and loved his job.