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Eva's Legacy: Heartbreak in the hills

| Sunday, March 6, 2005

GROVELAND, Calif. -- Mountain peaks dusted with snow loom over the Tuolumne River, which is swollen by winter rains. Oaks and ponderosa pines create a broken canopy on the steep rock-strewn foothills.

This time of year, the ground is typically wet and brown. But now a portion of it is black and lifeless, with trees charred and split from a wildland fire months ago.

They call this California Gold Country, a place where thousands scrounged for riches in the mid-1800s. These days, throngs flock here to kayak or hike. People who grow up on this land learn to appreciate the beauty and resources that draw these visitors, the main industry here now. Folks know they earn their living from the land, whether as outfitters or small business owners, or as wildland firefighters, protecting it.

Here, firehouses are the center of communities, places where townspeople gather to socialize, to raise money, sometimes to mourn. Firefighting offers full-time and seasonal jobs to many families living in these hills.

It's rare that a firefighter is lost defending this land, and when it happens it leaves a scar as dark as the burned-over woods.

This is a story about such a death, and about the painful healing that follows -- a slow process, like the way the blackened land recovers, season by season.

'Greasy Sunday'

It was "Greasy Sunday" in the kitchen of the California Department of Forestry air base at Columbia, home of "Helitack 404," part of an elite wildfire-fighting unit.

Just now, though, the attention of 404 was on food, not fire. Everybody was pitching in on Sunday brunch -- biscuits, gravy, pancakes and eggs.

Eva Schicke was on hash-brown duty, and crewmate Shane Neveau was teasing her about her cooking skills. It was just a joke: When the petite blonde started as a seasonal firefighter four years earlier, she couldn't boil water. Yet she tackled cooking with a determination she did all things, and now the only woman in 404 was known for her firefighting skills -- and her enchiladas.

Outside, as the firefighters ate, the sun was heating things up on this Sunday in September. State fire officials warned conditions were ripe for fire: temperatures rising to the 90s, and hot winds. And years of drought turned trees into kindling.

After brunch cleanup, Schicke settled down at the dining room table to study. Neveau sacked out on the couch to watch TV. Firefighter T.J. Fraser was trying to fix a chair he broke earlier. In the bunkroom, Jeff Boatman was taking a nap. Fire Capt. Frank Podesta was in his office when the alarm sounded.

'Where's Eva?'

The rotors were already chopping the air when the 404 loaded into a Super Huey. As the red-and-white helicopter lifted, crewmembers saw gray smoke rising in the distance.

The U.S. Forest Service spotted the smoke at 12:33 p.m. from a lookout post in the Tuolumne River Canyon of the Stanislaus National Forest. By 12:45 p.m., the fire was moving toward campgrounds and Highway 120, the western route into Yosemite National Park. The Forest Service made a "mutual aid" call, requesting help from CDF and its Helitack crew 22 miles away.

"We're going to have a full day," said Boatman, who, like others in the chopper, knew the terrain they were approaching -- steep hillsides covered in loose rock. Boatman kayaked portions of the Tuolumne; others camped in the area.

By the time the helicopter's skids touched down on a gravel bar along the river, air tankers were already making water drops.

Thick smoke blotted the sun as the 404 prepared to attack the fire.

Flames were moving uphill between the river and the road, a steep, rugged span of 240 feet. A steady, light wind was blowing. Fire Capt. Jonah Winger pointed out two safety zones -- the river bank and the road.

The crew's job was to flank the right side of the fire. It was routine procedure in wildland fires: Circle it, cut it off, force it to move in another direction. As part of the procedure, 404 dropped their backpack water pumps at the edge of the road in an area deemed safe. They would rely on hand tools and chain saws to cut fire lines.

The firefighters fell in behind Winger as he headed down the slope. First Fraser, then Jon Andall and Josh Agustin. They were followed by Neveau.

Boatman took a step and stopped for a moment at the edge of the road. He was letting space build between him and Neveau. But Eva Schicke stepped in to fill it.

"OK, I'll go," she said lightly, teasing him with a look that said he wasn't moving fast enough. They worked too many fires together, though, to ever believe the other wasn't pulling their weight.

Boatman fell in behind, bringing up the rear. And 404 got to work, clearing brush and leaves.

Flying embers were igniting spot fires, and Boatman, closest to the road, went to get a water pumper.

That's when the wind shifted.

Boatman heard it first: the roar. Then he saw it: a wall of flame racing up the slope toward the firefighters below him.

"Get out of there," he screamed at Schicke and Neveau. The two looked at him, then back at the fire. They turned and started to run uphill.

About 30 feet below, Winger yelled the same warning to Fraser, Agustin and Andahl.

Suddenly, the fire was nearly on top of the four men. They tumbled through brush, leaping through an opening in the fire, hitting rocks and trees.

Above, Boatman screamed again at Neveau and Schicke: "Run. Run!"

The fire was gaining momentum. Smoke erased Boatman's view, and heat forced him to step back.

Suddenly, a firefighter rolled out onto the road -- chased by flames that leaped into the trees on the other side.

The firefighter was Neveau, who struggled to get to his feet.

"Am I burned?" he cried. "Is my face burned?"

"Where's Eva?" Boatman shouted.

"She was right behind me," replied Neveau, who was having trouble breathing.

Boatman called down the smoking slope: "Eva. Eva. Eva!" There was no answer.

The 404 began a grid search, soon joined by the crews of three fire engines. From the river's edge, Winger and his crew struggled up the hill -- until a falling rock struck Fraser hard, forcing him to his knees.

Get up, he told himself. Go up there and find her. She'd do it for you.

They all felt that way.

This was a woman who went out of her way to carry her own weight, earning her way into the tight-knit club of wildland firefighting. Her athletic ability won her initial respect.

It began years before at the Arnold Fire Department, her first firefighting job. A male counterpart challenged her to a game of hoops -- and she stuffed him. At the time, she was a star basketball player at California State University, Stanislaus.

When she was invited to join Helitack, she played volleyball, again commanding equal treatment.

As a firefighter, she'd haul her own hose, roll it and put it away. If you even tried to treat her differently than the rest of the crew, Fraser knew, "She'd kick your butt."

At the same time, the guys knew a softer side. People opened up to Eva. If a fellow firefighter had a problem, there was never a judgment, never a smart remark from her.

Near the top of the road, Boatman found a hand shovel in the "black," the scorched area. Winger and the other searchers were approaching from below.

It was Neveau who first spotted something on the smoking ground. He pointed to a spot about 100 feet from the road.

"No!" Winger cried out.

Composing himself, he called over the radio:

"We found Eva."

Love is lost

Forty miles from the fire's front, at the Ebbetts Pass Fire Department, Shea Buhler heard the initial dispatch for 404 to the fire.

He had no idea there was anything wrong with Helitack 404 and particularly with Eva Schicke.

The two had met years earlier working as firefighters at Arnold. It started as friendship but grew into a romance.

Now, they were looking toward the future. Schicke had recently told her mother, "This is the guy. I'm going to marry him." Even her former basketball coach had seen it: "Eva glowed when she talked about Shea."

They were unofficially engaged. Buhler had the ring. He was waiting for the right moment. Maybe when they went skiing at Mammoth in a couple of months. Yeah, that would be the place, he thought.

But just now, Buhler was being called into the Ebbetts Pass chief's office. What's wrong, he wondered.

The Garden of Eva

On the fire line, word was beginning to spread.

CDF Battalion Chief Jeff Millar, organizing the continuing battle against the flames, was in the fire command truck when he received a cell phone call.

He recruited Eva Schicke into firefighting. Millar's wife, LeAnn, was the Stanislaus State coach. Over the years, the couple became close with Eva, who sometimes babysat their children.

"You'd make a good firefighter," Millar told Schicke, adding she could make substantial money for college just during the summer fire season.

With that, Schicke signed up. First, she was assigned to Millar's department in Arnold. Four years later, she came to him with tears in her eyes. She was leaving, going to Helitack because it was another challenge and there would be more time for her nursing studies. Millar hated to lose the spark she brought to the department.

She'd return sometimes, to put in overtime at Arnold, to help pay for nursing school.

The last time her saw her, there were no major calls and the firefighters spruced up the department. Eva went to work on a small patch of dirt in front of the building.

On her hands and knees, she planted pansies, a natural in this mountainous terrain with their delicate flowers and hardy nature. She even set up a simple watering system, requiring little work from the firefighters, who instantly called her little plot "The Garden of Eva."

"Don't you let those die," she yelled as she drove off.

And now this ...

The news stunned Buhler -- Eva dead• How?

Immediately, he raced to reach her mother. The news will kill her, he thought.

Joyce Schicke was sobbing when Buhler arrived. She spent months worrying about her son, John, a Marine who had been at war in Iraq. He came home safely. And now this ...

When the CDF flew Staff Sgt. John Schicke up from Camp Pendleton, Buhler picked him up. The two went to get Eva, whose body was still on the mountain.

They helped haul lines, pulling up the woman both loved. It was silent, except for the sounds of the forest and the wind. An American flag was draped across the body bag, which was placed in a pickup for the ride out of the forest.

'A happy ending ... eternity'

For the funeral, Arnold firefighters refashioned engine No. 4474, the truck she once drove, removing the hose bed and building a cradle for her casket. Her name was inscribed on the side of the red truck.

The truck made the 20-mile drive from the funeral home in Sonora to the Calveras County Fairgrounds. Behind them followed a 350-fire-vehicle procession. A Helitack helicopter followed, flying as close as possible.

Along the route, through lands Eva Schicke fought to protect, people from California Gold Country stood silent vigil as the truck passed. More than 3,000 firefighters came to pay their respects to the first woman California Department of Forestry firefighter lost in the line of duty.

Joyce Schicke, 54, clutched her daughter's helmet and wept at words meant to offer comfort.

As John Schicke recalled how his sister used to tear the heads off Barbie dolls, the wind came up suddenly and knocked over vases and pictures.

"I'm sorry," he said, smiling toward the sky. "I know she's laughing at us."

The pastor from her church read a note he said Eva made in her Bible. It referred to "a happy ending ... eternity."

Was it worth it?

Over the months since Eva Schicke's death, many questions have arisen for Helitack 404. One stands out.

Was it worth it?

Shane Neveau would give his answer at the same firehouse dining table where Eva sat studying her nursing books.

"Was it worth that little patch of ground• No," he said.

But he and others who continue to fight fires in Gold Country say they consider a bigger picture -- not a single blackened, gravelly hillside, but this land itself, the deep woods full of game, the timber, the trails that draw hikers and campers and keep this rural place alive. And more importantly, the resources it provides, the jobs. He answers his own question again.

"Yes," he says, his face hard, his mouth tight.

The firefighters await a final CDF report on just what happened, and why. A preliminary CDF report emphasizes a wind shift; officials say it appears Schicke slipped.

Though she's gone, those who knew her say they still feel her presence.

Shea Buhler tells of seeing an eagle -- the kind of bird whose feather Eva always kept in her truck -- circling three times above Eva's church service, then flying away.

Her mother says that one day, when her tears wouldn't stop, "I heard Eva's voice in my head. I heard her say, 'Mom, knock it off.'"

What she planned as a wedding quilt for Eva she turned into a photo-laden memory quilt.

Millar speaks of his firefighters' determination never to forget a woman who taught them a little about life and laughter.

How, he and Podesta ask themselves if the job can be done more safely as they prepare for the coming fire season.

Winter has brought drenching rain that made mudslides and headlines in other parts of California, and hope that this year's fires will be fewer.

In the forest, beneath the soggy, blackened soil, rebirth stirs. Soon, the first green shoots will push their way through -- a start toward the time when the black is green again.

It's the same slow healing for the mountain communities -- where windshield stickers read, "In Memory Of Eva Schicke," where fund-raisers are held to create two college scholarships in her name, where her smiling picture hangs above the "Garden of Eva," where in the spring her flowers will bloom again.

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