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An amateur hero


It had become something of a joke over the years among the residents on Blue Ridge Drive, a swath of manicured suburbia carved into the scrub-brush brown canyons of Yorba Linda, California.

Whenever the hot, dry, fire-fanning Santa Ana winds kicked up, which they do every fall, Jeff Reeves would go dashing off to the equipment yard of his construction company and get the 2,250-gallon water truck he uses to keep concrete moist at work sites. He'd park it in front of his house, the side sprayers and the high-pressure water cannon primed and ready to go.

"I can empty 2,250 gallons in five minutes and fill it up again five minutes after that," says Reeves, 49, a blue-collar, no-airs kind of guy, partial to sleeveless T-shirts and white plastic sunglasses. "And it only cost me $60,000. Fire engines cost half a million bucks."

Jeff Reeves in his Southern California neighborhood after the wildfires.
The neighbors liked to tease him about it, but Reeves was certain they secretly felt better having the truck, with its faded American flag decals, sitting by the curb. They knew, as he did, that sooner or later one of the wildfires that whip through northern Orange County could be carried by the winds to their doorsteps.

But on the blue-sky Saturday morning of November 15, Reeves hadn't bothered to retrieve his truck. There had been fires in the region, but not close to Yorba Linda. He went to coach his youngest son's soccer team, fire the furthest thing from his mind.

It was 9:40, the game almost over, when he saw the first distant wisps of smoke, too far away to seem like much of a threat but visible enough that he called his older sons at home. They told him everything was fine. At a little after ten, he dropped off his wife, Laurie, and their youngest son at the house and decided to go get his truck. Just to be safe.

By 10:15, everything had changed. As Reeves was driving the truck back from the equipment yard, Laurie called his cell phone. She was frantic. The neighborhood was being evacuated. "That water truck can go 83 miles an hour," Reeves says. "And that's how fast I was going."

A fire, unnoticed until it was too late, had roared up the canyon, blowing embers and smoke in 70 mph gusts, a massive billowing firestorm that one neighbor said "looked like a tidal wave." A house across the street and two doors down went up like a struck match.

Over the phone, Reeves told his wife to put the boys in the car and go. Then he got a call from a friend, Sam Easterday, who owned a fire hose and a water pump and offered to come help. By 10:30, Reeves was home, the truck hooked up to a fire hydrant and spraying water onto the burgeoning flames. Easterday put his pump in the backyard pool. Together, the men doused everything within reach.
 
"I kept waiting for the cavalry to come," Reeves would say later. "But they never did." The fire engines couldn't make it to all the houses on Blue Ridge Drive. There were too many other fires in too many other places.

Around 11:30, Sam Easterday got a call from his wife saying that his neighborhood was also being evacuated. By the time he got there, delayed by roadblocks and traffic jams, his home had burned to the ground. While his family was safe, everything he owned was gone. "We lost our baby books, our wedding pictures, my grandfather's stamp collection," Easterday says.

Reeves, now alone, kept working, driving up and down his and adjacent streets, saturating as many homes and yards as possible, firing the water cannon onto flaming trees and spraying floating embers, which filled the air like glowing red snowflakes. He stopped only long enough to refill the tank at fire hydrants, which he did 49 times. He worked until five o'clock the next morning, nearly 19 hours straight.

"By the end of the night, he had battalion chiefs calling him, asking if he could get to houses they couldn't," says Reeves's next-door neighbor Randy Bremer, who returned to the neighborhood in midafternoon and joined Reeves in his truck. "Around two in the morning, I was exhausted and came in the house to take a break," Bremer recalls. "I got out of the shower and I heard that truck. I couldn't believe it, but he was going out again."

"I'm not buying the hero thing," Reeves said a week after the fire-his doorbell still ringing as grateful neighbors brought him fruitcakes and chocolates-" 'cause I was never in any real danger. I was sitting in front of 2,200 gallons of water. I knew I'd be fine."

A couple of weeks after the fire, Reeves and his construction crews had torn down the charred remains of Easterday's house and cleared the lot in preparation for the new home that he will build. As for the truck, Reeves had taken it up and down Blue Ridge Drive to wash away as much ash as he could. Then he parked it in front of his house. This time, nobody laughed.

Text: Joe Rhodes - Reader's Digest

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