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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Tribe's crew 'Tip Of Spear'On Fire Lines
by Debbi Baker - San Diego (CA) Union-Tribune Staff Writer
credits: all photos by John R. McCutchen - San Diego (CA) Union-Tribune

Team from Sycuan tackles blazes with San Diego's Copter 1

OTAY MESA — When a brush fire rages in San Diego, one of the most important and least visible firefighting tools is an eight- to- 10-man crew that clears brush and cuts fire breaks on the front lines.

They are the Sycuan Golden Eagles Flycrew. The men are assigned to the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department's Copter 1 during fire season and fly with the water-dropping helicopter daily at no cost to the city.

The crew is made up of professional Sycuan firefighters and is housed at Station 43 in Otay Mesa.

"These guys are the tip of the spear," said Mitch Villalpando, Sycuan's deputy fire chief.

Armed with chain saws, shovels and scraping tools, crew members go to work clearing a line between the flames and the area that has not burned, trying to contain the blaze on its flanks before it can spread, said Perry Esquer, director of air operations.

They work in concert with Copter 1 as it drops water between them and the flames.

The men labor in areas that burn quickly, where flames move "at the whim of a wind gust," Esquer said.

"It's like sticking your head in a furnace," he said. "Hot, smoky, dirty, ugly."

Chad Webber, 23, wielded a chain saw yesterday to cut through tree branches during a training session in the tall, grass-covered hills east of Brown Field.

He was dripping with sweat after he and the men built 150 feet of fire break in about 10 minutes. The training is in preparation of the region's busiest months in September and October.

Webber described the work as something he enjoys and has always wanted to do. He said he likes being dropped off right next to the flames. "The fire gets the adrenaline kicking," he said.

Jose Deza, 29, in his seventh season with the crew, is the captain of the men who range in age from 19 to 37. Deza said the work was exciting and rewarding, and he described the 212 Bell HP twin-engine helicopter as a "limousine."

"We know they are going to put us where the flames are, right in the middle of the action, and that's the best part," Deza said.

The partnership between the city and Sycuan began in 2003 and mutually benefits the city and the tribal government, San Diego Deputy Fire Chief Brian Fennessy said.

The city gets a valuable work force worth tens of thousand of dollars and the tribal firefighters get training and experience and the use of the copter during fires on their land, Fennessy said.

During the offseason, the Flycrew contracts with the city of San Diego for brush clearing.

Esquer said the men are respected, appreciated and important to the city's firefighting efforts.

"No doubt the impact they make is very obvious when they are on the ground," he said.

Wayne Maxwell, 19, the youngest member of the crew who has been on the force for two years, said he appreciated being part of a team that sets goals and finishes them at the end of the day. He said he comes home exhausted but gratified.

"We save houses, and save lives if we can."

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