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Three head into the wildfires

Hillsborough County firefighters will face the California blazes, which have consumed more than 620,000 acres.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published November 2, 2003

TAMPA - Linda Ogden remembers the last time her son went off to fight an angry wildfire. The July blazes in Colorado raged so fiercely that Kevin Ogden and other firefighters had to retreat four times.

So, as Linda Ogden sat in Tampa International Airport on Saturday and waited for her 26-year-old son to board a flight to San Diego, she smiled with pride even as she fought back tears of fear.

"We're glad he gets to go," said Ogden, who lives in Brandon with her husband, Gary.

"But it's scary. I'll keep the phone in my hand until he gets back."

She'll be holding the phone close for at least a few weeks.

Capt. Ogden and two other volunteer Hillsborough firefighters are off to a 30-day assignment in California, where wildfires have consumed about 2,750 homes and more than 620,000 acres.

Joining Ogden are Capt. Tom McKibbin, a volunteer with the Mango-Seffner Volunteer Fire Department, and Mike Perry, an assistant training chief for Hillsborough County Fire Rescue and a retired supervisor from the Florida Division of Forestry.

The three men will use their combined five decades of experience to hold back the Cedar Creek fire, a hot spot about 20 miles north of San Diego, from destroying more homes.

The fire has burned about 281,000 acres and taken more than 2,200 homes in the area so far, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho.

Eighty-eight firefighters have been injured. One firefighter was killed Wednesday, adding to a casualty list that includes 14 civilians.

But as Ogden and McKibbin spoke to reporters before their flight, they displayed a mix of confidence and cautious excitement.

"When everybody else is running away, we're running right for it," said McKibbin, a 48-year-old father of three. "If you're not confident in this business, you might as well do something else for a living. When we get there, we're going to hope for the best. But we don't quit, we don't stop."

They go into this assignment knowing, based on past experience, that they'll work 16-hour shifts on little or no sleep. They know dehydration is the biggest risk. They figure they'll shed several pounds each, even as they consume about 7,500 calories a day.

McKibbin, Ogden and Perry are among 20 or so Hillsborough firefighters on the Division of Forestry's roster for emergencies in other states. To qualify, the firefighters take a variety of courses. They also must pass a rigorous physical test that involves carrying a 45-pound pack across 3 miles in 45 minutes.

So far, about 15,000 firefighters and support personnel are battling the blazes in Southern California. Gov. Gray Davis estimates $2-billion in damage and rescue costs so far.

Nancy Couch, division chief for Hillsborough Fire Rescue, said McKibbin, Ogden and Perry were chosen because of their expertise in fighting wildfires and structure fires. The California fires are especially worrisome because they aren't just eating up forest; the flames are licking at back yards and front lawns.

"There are lives on the line, property on the line," McKibbin said. "Some of these families saved nothing. Others were lucky to escape with a few pictures. We need people that have done this before and can handle the stress of these conditions."

Awaiting the men in San Diego is a special engine that carries 500 gallons of water and can pump 120 gallons per minute at pressures of up to 275 pounds per square inch. It's about half the length of a standard fire truck, a size that allows it to maneuver hilly terrain and dense forest.

Disaster Recovery Inc., a private company owned by McKibbin and his sister, rents the engine to the government for emergencies. The truck was hauled to California on a flatbed truck that left Thursday.

McKibbin used the engine in Colorado last summer, when he and Ogden went to a fire that ravaged more than 137,000 acres and destroyed more than 130 homes outside Colorado Springs. McKibbin's most recent deployment was to a 38,000-acre fire Montana. In 2002, he helped battle a 750-acre fire in Oregon.

Earlier this year, Ogden searched Texas terrain for scattered pieces of the fallen space shuttle Columbia.

The men say this fire is among the worst they've ever faced in terms of size and the emotional strain of seeing so much property destroyed.

McKibbin said a forecasted cold front could make their assignment easier, maybe even briefer than 30 days.

Until then, his fiancee and three grown children will wait and pray for the best. And Ogden's parents and girlfriend, fellow Hillsborough firefighter Trisha Wigh, will wait by the phone.

- Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 661-2443 or svansickler@sptimes.com

[Last modified November 2, 2003, 07:26:04]


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