From within the flames engulfing the four-story apartment building in Ventura County came a sound that Los Angeles Fire Captain Mark McCurdy knew all too well.
“I had a quick flashback like we’re back in Vegas,” McCurdy later said. “I’m like, ‘Oh goodness, it’s only been two months.’”
The sound was the very one that 42-year-old McCurdy had heard on Oct. 1 at the Route 91 Harvest music festival as people were gunned down all around him. McCurdy now had a mental image of somebody standing on a hill, firing down at them the way the gunman had in Las Vegas.
“I’m like, ‘That can’t be real,’” he would recall of the sound he heard inside the burning Ventura County apartment building.
In the next moment, he realized that he was hearing ammunition that had been set off by the blaze. A spent bullet struck a fence railing near him and fell to the ground. He bent and retrieved it, and later took a cell phone picture of it that he texted to his wife, Kelly Presten McCurdy.
Kelly had gone with him to the Las Vegas concert, along with her sister, Jessi Presten, and other friends. He had responded to the sudden horror there first and foremost not as an off-duty firefighter, but as an ever on-duty husband.
“It changes everything when you have your wife with you,” McCurdy later said.
His sister-in-law was hit and they sought shelter by an outdoor bar to check her wounds and see if anyone else in the group had been shot. He saw that Jessi had been wounded in the upper leg and back and decided they had to keep moving. He called out for everybody to stay out of the light as they raced on.
After they reached the street, Jessi began to slow. McCurdy threw her over his shoulder and ran maybe 200 yards away from the continuing gunfire to the side of the Luxor Hotel. He then went back to help a search for the wife of a Santa Monica fire captain who had been separated from the group after somebody else went down, having either tripped or been shot.
Fifty-eight people were killed, but the Santa Monica captain’s wife escaped injury and McCurdy’s sister-in-law survived her wounds. Mark and Kelly McCurdy returned home to Southern California, where her parents had been baby sitting their two daughters, 6-year-old Reaghan and 4-year-old Ryleigh.
Mark McCurdy learned that fellow off-duty Firefighter Steve Keys of Glendale—who had not been there with a wife to protect—had suffered a graze wound in the chest when he stopped to administer CPR to a woman who had been shot. Keys and McCurdy remained amazed by the cops they had seen racing towards automatic gunfire.
“I don’t know how they did it,” McCurdy later said.
McCurdy and his wife and sister-in-law then continued living lives that would have ceased altogether had they not been among the lucky ones. The sister-in-law posted a photo of prescription pills and bandages on Facebook, along with a message that marked the passage of time since the mass shooting:
“Three weeks progress! I’m finally off most of these darn pills. I even made the step from the big bandage to a smaller one. Every day I heal more and more. Thank you to my sisters for being the best first responders! Most of all thank you to all of you for your love and support. It has meant so much to me to know I was meant to come home to all of you!”
The group that had gone to the concert planned a return to Las Vegas for a rodeo and some country music as a way of proving themselves unbowed. McCurdy was still hoping to join them when his unit in Palmdale got a late-night order to join the fight against a wildfire in Ventura an hour’s drive away. They immediately started and got a measure of the magnitude of what awaited them on the other side of the mountains, an hour’s drive away.
“We could see the glow as soon as we got on the freeway… which is far,” McCurdy later said. “We knew we were going to work.”
The glow grew ever brighter and became roaring flames when they arrived.
“There was fire all over the place,” McCurdy later said.
In less dire circumstances, they would have paused with the others of their 22-member strike team to plan a course of action. The situation was urgent enough that they were put to work immediately. McCurdy was scouting the best path to stretch a line when he suddenly heard the sounds come from a burning apartment building that sent him back to Vegas.
“It was kind of freaky,” he later reported.
The firefighter driving the engine—an engineer in LAFD parlance—was a veteran. But one of the other two men with McCurdy was on his very first shift as a firefighter. The fourth member of the crew had only been on the job for four months. McCurdy maintained his composure, figuring the monster fire was enough without them having to see their captain being freaked out by a flashback.
A week later, they were still battling what had become known as the Thomas Fire. McCurdy began to lose track of time and had to check his watch not just for the hour but also for the day. He had to miss the return trip to Las Vegas, but his wife, Kelly, and sister-in-law, Jessi, went ahead. He got a report via cell phone from Kelly.
“She said it was good,” McCurdy told The Daily Beast. “A little bit of crying but they were with good people.”
He still hoped to be home in time to join his family on a Girl Scout outing to Disney on Ice on Dec. 16.
“So it’s not another thing I might have not to be there for,” he said.
He allowed, “If I'm home for Christmas, I’ll be happy.”
In the meantime, he also used his cell phone to check in periodically with his daughters via FaceTime.
The Thomas fire roared on from Ventura County into Santa Barbara County with McCurdy and his crew and thousands of other firefighters working to engage it however possible without getting anyone hurt. They made a continual calculation.
“Risk versus gain,” McCurdy said.
But a host of variables can suddenly change everything. Fire engineer Cory Iverson of the San Diego County strike force was killed, suffering smoke inhalation and what were officially termed “thermal injuries.” Iverson was 32 and was survived by a pregnant wife, Ashley, and their 2-year-old daughter.
The battle continued as the Thomas Fire roared on its way to becoming the biggest ever recorded in California, burning 273,400 acres, about 427 square miles. The fight turn toughest when the wind was high and the terrain was steep and the vegetation was dry, all of it in what the firefighters term “alignment.”
“When everything is in alignment, you’re going to have to get out of the way of it,” McCurdy said.
At moments when the flames were closing in, the firefighters could only instruct any people who were still there to evacuate. The firefighters otherwise did whatever circumstances allowed to protect life and property.
“We just kind of pick which [houses] we think we can save,” McCurdy later said.
When they were able, they would cut trees so close to the house as to pose a threat and clear any pine needles from the gutters and move any firewood stacked against the exterior and clear any furniture from the deck or patio.
“That’s if we have time,” McCurdy said.
One area had been devastated by a fire eight years ago, and some of the residents faced the prospect of losing their home a second time.
“They were thinking their house was going to burn down again,” McCurdy said.
The firefighters asked the residents for whatever particulars they remembered.
“A lot of intel about winds and terrain and how the last fire hit,” McCurdy said. “We call it local knowledge.”
The area was spared as the weather cooled and the fire began to slow. McCurdy and his crew had been at it for just under a fortnight when the situation allowed for them to head home.
“Thirteen and a half days,” McCurdy reported.
McCurdy returned last Sunday just in time to surprise his daughters at the Girl Scout outing to Disney on Ice.
“They were happy,” McCurdy reported.
McCurdy was himself as happy as any fallen fighter would no doubt have wanted him to be. He and all living firefighters kept a place in their heart for Fire Engineer Iverson, whose remains were escorted that very morning from the Ventura County medical examiner’s office to the El Camino Memorial Park in San Diego. The 174-mile drive testified to the distance Iverson had traveled to risk and lose all for the sake of others.
McCurdy had off until Wednesday, when he returned to his firehouse in Palmdale and resumed his usual tours of remaining ready to risk all.
“Back to my normal days,” he said. “Starting on regular calls again.”
McCurdy had high praise for the performance of the two newest members of his crew in a prolonged battle that might have made lesser newbies falter. He posted a kind of paean to them and the veteran engineer on Facebook:
“Couldn't be prouder of these guys. A solid Engineer, 4-month probationary firefighter and another probationary firefighter with 15 hours on the job when we were sent to the Thomas Fire. We could see the glow in the distance from Palmdale and when we arrived immediately went to work. Strong work men!”
He had in his bag the spent bullet that had struck the railing beside him as the all too familiar sounds erupted from within the burning apartment building at the start of his longest fire. He and his wife and sister-in-law remained among the lucky ones, when 58 others had lived their last moments at that concert in Las Vegas that too much of the country seems to have already forgotten.
A reminder that McCurdy was doubly fortunate came Saturday morning as a memorial service was held for Fire Engineer Iverson at the Rock Church in Point Loma. The thought of Iverson’s grieving pregnant wife and his suddenly fatherless 2-year-old daughter should remind everyone what first responders—be it cops at a mass shooting in Las Vegas or firefighters at a wildfire in California or other heroes whenever great danger arises—are routinely willing to sacrifice to bring us the greatest of Christmas gifts.
That gift is to be among the living with our families.
McCurdy was working Saturday and he is one of thousands of first responders scheduled to be on duty on Christmas Day. He says that his daughters accept that daddy will not be home.
“They’re used to it,” he said. “They understand the job.”
He added, “But I’ll be off Christmas Eve, so that’s good.”