The memorial for LA County firefighters Captain Ted Hall and Specialist Arnie Quinones will be held at 10 a.m. on Saturday at Dodger Stadium.
So let us revisit the events on Mt. Gleason on August 30 in order to honor the work and the lives of two men who became the teachers, heroes and friends, over the years, to several hundred wildland firefighters—who also happened to be prison inmates.
Many of those former inmates will be prominent among the mourners at Elysian Park on Saturday morning.
Mt. Gleason, or Camp 16 —it is known by both appellations-— was opened in 1979 as the first of four Los Angeles County Fire Department Wild Land fire camps where prison inmates are trained in wild land fire fighting techniques—and then deployed to the front lines when a fire breaks out.
“Most of us are flatlanders,” said LA County fire inspector Steve Zermeno. “We’re the ones who are going to be used for structure protection. These guys,” he said, “the inmates, are the people who are trained in wildland firefighting, which is a whole different thing.
“So when we get a big fire like the Station fire, we really count on them.”
At the time that the Station Fire broke out—the largest fire ever to hit LA—Ted Hall and Arnie Quinones were stationed at Mt. Gleason to train, mentor and help deploy Camp 16’s teams of inmate firefighters.
It seems that, for both men, their commitment to the fire camp work was some kind of genuine calling. Ted Hall had been stationed at Gleason for the past few years and loved being up there.
Arnie Quinones, who was younger than Ted Hall, had been at the Gleason camp longer, since 2005. But when the department higher ups learned that his adored wife Lori was pregnant, they offered Q.—as he was called—a chance to transfer to a post that would be closer to his wife as her delivery date approached.
Arnie declined the transfer. He was devoted to his wife, but in terms of work, he wanted to remain with the wildfire inmates at Camp 16.
It was, as we now know, a fateful choice—in the worst and the best sense or the term.
It has already been reported, here and elsewhere, that Quinones and Hall helped save the lives of the 55 inmates and three CDCR staff who were still at Mt. Gleason when a part of the Station fire made a run at the camp. (The camp’s other 50 or so inmates were already deployed on the fire lines.)
But the details of what happened that day are far scarier:
The fire didn’t just overrun the camp. It turned into a blast-furnace and melted it. It caused its windows to to turn liquid and run into sculptural puddles. When people talk about infernos, the fire that ate Camp Gleason is what they have in mind.
NOTE: The investigation is ongoing and new facts and shadings to events will assuredly emerge, but, based on interviews with CDCR officials and LA County Fire spokespeople, here is the best of what we know so far about what happened on Mt. Gleason :
When the fire shifted course and began racing toward the camp, Hall and Quinones herded everyone into the cinder block-constructed dining hall, which had long been designated as the structure most likely to provide adequate shelter. But the fire continued to intensify. Hall told everyone to stay put, while he and Quinones tried to set some back fires to slow the flames down.
Deliberately setting a fire in front of an oncoming conflagration, if done right, burns back toward the blaze and takes away its fuel. A backfire won’t altogether stop a big fire that’s on the move. But it’ll take some of the wind out of its sails.
Hall and Quinones took off in a large, red 4X4 pickup and within ten or fifteen minutes they radioed that they’d accomplished what they needed to do and were heading back.
In the meantime, however, things were changing at camp. The dining hall that had been a refuge was turning into an oven. Literally. The fire had already eaten much of the oxygen in the structure. Glass began to liquefy and the roof buckled ominously. The foreman left in charge in Hall’s absence, quickly came to the conclusion that he had to get everyone out of the dining hall immediately, even though that meant running through flames.
As the men ran out, to protect themselves marginally, they deployed their fire shelters, the small emergency tents with one highly reflective surface, that firefighters use only when all other hope is gone and they have no means of escaping a fire.
The camp had three mascots—two dogs and a cat-–to which most inmates and staff became attached during their stay in the mountains. When everyone raced to take shelter in the dining hall, several of the crew members corralled Magic, the small black Lab and Spooky, a black dog of indeterminate parentage, and got them into the building with them. Still another inmate grabbed J-Cat, the large, gray feline, who was not nearly so cooperative as the dogs.
On the way out, however, both dogs panicked, got away from their handlers and ran back into the flaming dining hall. The Gleason crews watched in horror as, seconds later, the structure’s roof gave way on top of the dogs. In the commotion, J-Cat also escaped, leaving behind him some deep scratches in his inmate caretaker’s arms.
Next, the foreman piled everyone into crew carriers, and proceeded to drive around looking for some place in the camp that wasn’t burning. By then the backfires had started to work just a bit of their magic, and the best someplace turned out to be the parking lot, which had the most cleared space around it. Yet, while not actively on fire, no one mistook the parking lot for safe.
Some of the men fully deployed their fire shelters.
Everyone wondered if they would survive. But, by then the worst was over. The back fires had turned the tide, just enough.
“I don’t know how we are here,” said a still shaken Captain Sharon Henry, who was one of the three CDCR staff who were at Gleason during the fire. “…except to say that it wasn’t our time.”
Repeated calls were made to Hall and Quinones on the radio. But they never picked up.
As we all now know, and edge of the fire caught up with the two men, and their truck plunged 800 feet down an embankment. Ted hall and Arnie Quinones put themselves fearlessly in harm’s way to do what was needed to save the men in camp. But they had not been able to save themselves.
Captain Ray Harrington was the CDCR officer who debriefed the Gleason teams the next day, after their rescue. Finding out about Hall and Quinones deaths, he said, “was just horrific for them.
“When they work those fire lines, they all pull together. They become a team. So, yeah, they were devastated.”
Inspector Zermeno agrees. “The firefighters and the inmates become very close. They become a family.”
On Saturday, the CDCR firefighting family will be among those grieving deeply….and giving thanks.