With nowhere to run, firefighters 'shake-n-bake'

When the blaze jumped Santiago Canyon Road, volunteer firefighter David Hunt knew he and 11 colleagues were a last line of defense between the Santiago fire and homes in the canyons of east Orange County.

Late Monday afternoon, Hunt, 43, charged up a steep, rocky hill a few miles from his home in Modjeska Canyon with his fellow firefighters, hose in hand.

As flames roared up the incline, they opened the nozzle but saw, to their horror, no water came out. The hose had melted, as did the others they tried.

With no place to escape, and the fire about to overtake them, someone gave the order: "Deploy your emergency packs" -- metallic, fireproof coverings called "shake-n-bakes" by the firefighters. The eerie sight of the huddled firefighters was captured in a Los Angeles Times photograph.

Hunt said the heat was intense as the fire passed over the group of firefighters. He couldn't estimate how long they were under the coverings, but he said it felt like a long time.

"Then someone said, 'All clear,' and we got up and walked away," Hunt said. "I think we were all pretty lucky."

Hunt, who works at his father's high-tech instrument company, was one of three volunteers from the tightknit, all-volunteer Station 16 in Modjeska Canyon.

Marc Grossman, another Modjeska Canyon volunteer firefighter caught in the blaze, just shrugged when asked about the incident.

"It wasn't a big deal," said Grossman, who operates a CPR school. "We walked away" from it.

Some of the others thought otherwise.

"I'm very grateful," said John Whitfield, a professional juggler and 14-year resident of Modjeska Canyon. "I'm absolutely, totally grateful. I'd do anything for those guys."