Firefighter killed in forest fire was CDF’s first female fatality
COLUMBIA, Calif. – A member of an elite helicopter wildfire crew has become the first female firefighter from the California Department of Forestry to die in the line of duty, state officials said Monday.
Eva Schicke, 24, of Arnold, was killed Sunday after she and six other firefighters were dropped into rugged terrain just outside Yosemite National Park and overrun by the flames. Her body was recovered Monday morning.
Her six crew members were released after being treated for injuries they suffered while trying to cut off the fire’s advance through the Tuolumne River Canyon.
In a press conference in Sacramento Monday, state officials identified the victim but could give few other details about what happened.
“This is a very difficult day for our department,” said Jim Wright, chief of fire protection at the CDF. “It is just a reminder of the danger our firefighters face on a daily basis.”
The 800-acre forest fire continued to burn Monday as federal investigators probed its causes.
Officials said the air crew was dispatched into the Stanislaus National Forest around 2 p.m. Sunday in support of the U.S. Forest Service, which was already trying to contain what was considered a comparatively small wildfire.
Wright said the crew appeared to be on the ground about an hour. Their job was to use hand tools to build a fire break ahead of the oncoming blaze.
The mood at the two camps were Schicke served over the past four and a half years was somber. In Arnold, where she did her first training and was assigned most of the time, a roadside memorial that included bouquets of flowers and balloons arranged between a pair of boots, a helmet, gloves and a shovel. A poster board included notes from friends and colleagues.
“I’d never met a better firefighter or person,” wrote firefighter Joe Ortegal. “You will be greatly missed and will always be in our hearts.”
Phyllis Banducci, CDF spokeswoman at the camp, said the other members of the team were in debriefing interviews. “It’s an opportunity for them to talk, to vent.”
Although investigators said they do not know what happened Sunday, Banducci said the accident site is in a steep canyon area and firefighters recorded a change in the wind about the time of the incident.
She said investigators may have a preliminary report within 48 hours.
The six injured firefighters were all treated and released. Officials said they do not have a cause of death for Schicke.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued a statement Monday expressing sympathy. “In the face of danger, Eva acted with courage and commitment, giving her life for the protection of her fellow Californians,” he said, ordering flags to be flown at half-staff.
Although only 24, Schicke was a member of the department’s helicopter team – considered among the best firefighters in the system, Wright said. She had spent four and a half seasons working as a part-time firefighter.
She was also a student at California State University, Stanislaus, where she played basketball. She was single, Wright said.
“She was average size but tough as nails,” said CDF Battalion Chief Jeff Millar, who hired Schicke nearly five years ago.
Schicke played basketball for Millar’s wife, the coach at CSU Stanislaus. He said she graduated with a degree in criminal justice but wanted eventually to become a nurse.
“She was the kind of person we’re looking for – the kind that is athletic, good team players and good at living in groups,” he said. “She was just a great kid.”
Officials at CSU Stanislaus said Schicke was remembered for her enthusiasm and energy. As a senior, Schicke started every game and finished her last season as the team’s second-leading scorer.
“She was the fire plug, the ball of energy, and the heart and soul of the team,” Brian Blank, the school’s sports information officer.
George Muedeking, Schicke’s academic adviser at CSU Stanislaus, said she often returned to school to register for classes wearing military fatigues still smelling of smoke.
“I said, ‘Why do you want to do that?’ She just said, ‘I like doing it,”‘ Muedeking said.
Muedeking said Schicke was energetic and as a basketball player, she “just ran full out the whole game” and it was hard to imagine she couldn’t outrun death, too.
“It just seemed like every day was a new experience for her,” Muedeking said. “Her commitment was very strong when she decided to do something. She really saw it through.”
CDF spokeswoman Sharon Torrence said the helicopter crew was assigned to the a Columbia Air Attack Base in Columbia, Calif.
On the Net:
California Department of Forestry: http://www.fire.ca.gov
National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov/