Titan Cheatham won’t soon forget the fierce blast of heat from a smoldering tree stump he encountered while battling the Kincade fire last month.
Cheatham — a rookie, wildland firefighter who was one of four injured battling the Kincade fire — had arrived in Sonoma County on Oct. 25, along with 19 other firefighters working with the Ashland, Oregon-based wildland fire and forestry contractor Pacific Oasis Inc., he said. The crew came across the stump two days later, about 100 feet from a large, beige home spared by passing flames, though nearby properties were not so lucky.
“It was hot enough that you just wanted to stay back, even with your fire gear on,” Cheatham, who worked as an arborist for five years prior to becoming a firefighter, said of the burning wood. “The inside of it looked like a volcano.”
Cheatham, 29, used a chain saw to cut a block into the wood, a tactic that would help stop the flames from spreading into the tree’s roots, he said. Cheatham then stepped away, setting the saw down to check his work and clear the area of rocks that might hinder his second attempt. At the request of a supervisor, he also checked the machine’s fuel levels, unscrewing a cap to peek inside the gas chamber before walking back to the red-hot piece of wood.
The first pull start failed to bring the machine back to life. On the second try, the fuel cap popped off.
“I remember looking at (my supervisor) and the fuel sprayed me on my stomach and my legs,” said Cheatham, who was transported to the UC Davis Medical Center’s burn center by helicopter. “As soon as I hit that f—ing throttle, it blew up.”
The injury, which left Cheatham hospitalized with second- and third-degree burns to his legs and stomach as of Friday afternoon, is one of three from the Kincade fire under investigation by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, agency spokesman Frank Polizzi said.
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