Makeshift brigade makes a stand — and wins
Haines' 31-year-old pumper truck and his tanker truck of similar vintage -- purchased from the Merced County Fire Department -- helped a do-it-yourself fire brigade save a dozen homes when flames encircled their El Nido neighborhood.
In the end, the professional firefighters didn't reach the residents' stretch of Sequit, which is a narrow dirt road. But the amateurs were able to get the job done.
Bill Raffin, one of the neighborhood volunteers, pulled out his portable pump and started drawing water from a swimming pool. Ken Wherry unrolled a canvas fire hose and connected it to a hydrant up the street. Kai Chan stretched out smaller garden hoses and laid them in strategic places around houses.
And at the end of the block, Haines sprayed down Dave and Paula Levy's distinctive dome home to protect it from a cascade of embers. He did the same at his own nearby house.
When the burning cinders flew over the street and set a steep canyon south of Sequit ablaze and flames shot back up the hill, Haines sprayed down houses on the south side of the street, including one he is building that is sided in tar paper. His 750-gallon 1976 Ford fire engine performed flawlessly, he said, as did its companion truck, a 3,000-gallon tanker.
The white firetruck still has "Fire Dept." painted on its doors, although the name "Merced" has been scraped off.
"I hate to tell you what I paid for them. . . . The fire engine cost $2,500. The tanker $3,500," Haines said.
"And you know something? We saved millions of dollars' worth of property today with those."
Haines, 49, is a general contractor who has built several of the homes along Sequit. He said he bought the firefighting equipment to protect new houses that he's constructing. He taught himself how to operate the fire engine's pumps and replenish its water supply from the tanker -- which professional firefighters call a "water tender."
The Levys were not home when the fire struck. Most other residents along Sequit had evacuated when Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies drove through the area before dawn and warned that a fire was coming their way.
But those who formed Sequit's impromptu fire company stayed and fought. "If you stay, all you have to do is put out the embers when the fire goes through," said Wherry, a 71-year-old retired sales manager who has lived with his wife, Marguerite, on Sequit since 1991.
When flames hit Sea Breeze, above his street, Wherry said he climbed the hill and used a garden hose to save a yellow home that was about to catch fire from a nearby burning tree. "I saw a garden hose and used it to put out the tree fire," he said. "After that, the house was fine."
Back down on Sequit, there was disappointment when the stay-behind residents tried to use their own canvas fire hoses: They burst from the high pressure of the fire hydrants.
"You have to have them laid out straight, and these weren't. And they were old," Wherry said.
Some of those who used garden hoses managed to put out spot fires at neighbors' homes along Sequit before the structures were engulfed, said Chan, 51, a professional golf instructor. Good brush clearance and fire-resistant construction helped, he said.
"The hillside was lit up with 100-foot flames. . . . It was burning all around us. And I'm standing there, and all I've got is a garden hose," Chan said. "But it worked."
Those who stayed behind, said Marguerite Wherry, 57, a real estate agent, protected 11 houses on Sequit -- including one that nearly ignited two hours after the fire burned through the area.
"I called the Fire Department at 8:20 and said El Nido was burning and no firetrucks were here. They said they were trying to get up here," Marguerite Wherry said.
The only house on Sequit that burned was a home at the corner of Sequit and Sea Breeze that was out of range of Haines' fire hose.
After hours of work, Haines maneuvered his four-wheel-drive firetruck up a hill in hopes of protecting some storage containers he owns.
Unfortunately, his pumper truck ran dry, and his tanker truck was a quarter of a mile away. Soon, the containers' contents ignited.
"My mother's antique furniture and my tools are in there," he said. "I ran out of water. That's why I didn't get the fire out in time," he said.
"But you know something? I'm blessed. We all are. We didn't lose a house down here."