The heat of the moment

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When Arcata Fire District Chief Justin McDonald saw the black smoke seeping from the suburban home across the street from where he stood, his first instinct wasn’t to assess and respond like his training told him, it was to stop and breathe. McDonald wasn’t too close to the source of the fire that oxygen had become a problem; it was that he was too close to the people involved.

Not a week prior, McDonald had been in the modest, single-level home himself, sitting at the dining room table enjoying a good meal and conversation with longtime friends. Now, the situation was vastly different- he wasn’t there to borrow tools or to catch up; he was there to do his job.

“I’ve learned the hard way,” McDonald said. “You’ve got to prepare yourself, because you’re going to go on people that you know. It could be classmates, or maybe even family members, but you have to be ready.”

McDonald was just 19 when he began volunteer firefighting. At the time it was all about the endorphins that rushed through his system, the excitement that came with running into a burning building. After seven years of volunteering, his feelings changed. Fighting fire was no longer a hobby; it was something McDonald felt he needed to do. McDonald became a career firefighter for the Arcata Fire District in 2001; never once thinking about the repercussions risking his life for others would bring him- his purpose became serving those in the community he’s called home his whole life.

“I’m definitely the local guy,” McDonald said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone on calls and seen the anxiety of the people instantly drop because they know me. It can be a little stressful because I know them, but they feel comfort in my presence and know I’m there to help.”

But while there may be added pressure for those he holds near, sometimes the toughest calls are the ones involving strangers. This was the case for a call in July 2010 that McDonald remembers all too well.

The smoke was thick and pluming through the air as flecks of debris and ash fell from the sky. The front end of the McKinleyville home was engulfed in flames, and as every moment passed, less and less of the house was accessible to rescuers. As firefighters began to grab hoses and assess the damage, McDonald received a report: two individuals were still trapped inside—one, a child, and the other, their grandmother.

After a quick assessment, McDonald, as acting battalion chief, came up with a plan. Two of the crew quickly took a hose and ran toward the back of the house, where they found a room practically untouched by the fire’s breadth. Once inside, they found the child safely tucked away outside the room, seemingly unharmed. As one firefighter escorted the child out, another went in search of the grandmother, only to find that it was too late.

“We risk a lot to save a lot, and you risk little to save little. That’s the mantra,” McDonald said. “We are going to risk our lives to perform a rescue, but survivability can be a hard thing to factor. There’s going to be times where we can’t go into a fire, like one that’s throughout the whole house. That’s going to always be really hard for our folks to accept sometimes. Because sometimes, it’s just too dangerous.”

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