Sunday, July 29, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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One man's notes from inside the inferno

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Editors note: Matthew Rutman, 26, was working as a swamper, clearing debris from a fire break, when the Thirty Mile blaze exploded. He snapped pictures and kept a short diary as the fire raced toward him, and later wrote more fully about the event. This is his story.

My name is Matthew Rutman, I'm a firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service, and I was in the Thirty Mile Fire that took the lives of four firefighter brothers and sisters. I was trapped with 13 fellow firefighters and two citizens on a road that dead-ended into a trailhead when what is known as a "blowout" occurred.

I deployed my fire shelter, breathed the superheated air and gases, heard screaming, jumped into the creek and barely survived the fire and its aftermath.

I write this to whoever will listen. I write this because I am angry, sad, confused — and want with all my heart to believe that those four firefighters did not die for no reason. I want people to understand what firefighters all over the country are exposed to every season.

One reason I believe I am alive today is because I wrote down what was happening, what I was feeling up to the minute we deployed our shelters. I did not leave the road. I thought about it. I watched others wander into the rocky area, but I did not go.

I am alive today only because I stayed on the road. I stayed with my words.

Rutman scrawled the following in a small notebook in the moments before the fire overtook him. It is published as written, without editing.

Blackened pine and fir needles are falling on our heads. We've been cut off from our escape road, backed into a dead-end road (needles and ash are bouncing off my shirt, off this notebook).

The roar of the fire is getting louder, louder. The column twisting, several fires joined, it sounds like a tidal wave is coming our way. The sun is a bloody red, the smoke dark and high. The falling nettles sound like hail on a cold Northwest morning. The wind rips through the canyon, I watch the top of trees swaying violently from the high winds that the fire is creating. It's changing and twisting all around us

The beach and the creek are our last stand; we may be jumping in soon.

I hear a chopper, or is that just the roar of the fire rapidly coming upon us It's changing, rolling, screaming!!

I feel the heat, I smell the smoke. The sun is free of the tall column, sending dusty rays our way through the haze. Its close now, its close now!!!

Rolling right by us now, just across the little creek, the creek that may end up saving our lives.

Here it comes. Again the sun is covered, bright orange, then yellow, then red.

There is a strange calm, coolness in the air amongst the crew. For the first time, we can see the flames. Its licking, its rolling, its alive, its screaming at us!!!

There's a spot fire in the rock scree, just above us.

And now it's gray, here comes the flame again. It's snowing

The diary ends abruptly. Rutman stuffed the notebook into a pocket, snapped a frame with a disposable camera and deployed his shelter. Days later, he wrote again.

If I could finish off those moments, it would go something like this:

It's snowing fire. A snowstorm of burning red embers is falling on us. I brush red-hot embers from the back of my neck and hair. The noise and wind are so intense I can hear nothing from the crew.

I unfold my shelter without thinking, and within seconds find myself curled in the fetal position, thinking, `Oh my God, how did this happen?'

I began to hyperventilate, sucked in some hot air, felt like I was going to die, confronted death, argued with it over my life, heard screaming. I fought the urge to jump out of my shelter, and felt the winds trying to rip it off me.

Then I felt as if I were being pelted by a thousand snowballs as a barrage of embers, broken tree branches and ash pelted the shelter. It came in several intense waves and at one point I thought surely I would be dead before this was all over. I thought about my family and friends and got lost momentarily in desperation.

Then I got out my Leatherman, started digging a hole and focused on getting as low to the ground as possible to suck the cool air from the hole.

This kept me focused until I heard the call to run for the creek. I stumbled with my shelter through the smoke and heat, jumped over a flaming log, and met my crew in the cold icy waters of the Chewuch River. We redeployed our shelters and spent the next 30 minutes up to our neck in those waters, not sure of what was happening all about us. I shared my tent with a fellow firefighter, and we spent most of the time embraced, assuring each other that we would survive this.

Eventually we were told to get onto the beach, where we had about one minute to feel safe. Suddenly, the loud boom of tires exploding met us, and we gazed at the civilians' truck, which was engulfed in flames. The tires were exploding one by one. We all thought the truck was going to explode into us. We heard the breaking of a tree and watched half of a burning tree break and fall on top of the shelters we had just been deployed in.

We backed into the waters of the creek, expecting the rest of the flaming tree to fall on us, and the truck to explode into us at any moment. Just when we thought the shit was really going to hit the fan, a truck with several firefighters showed up and yelled at us to get into the van, and get the hell out of there. They had logged out the road, and cleared a safe evacuation for us.

Rutman's account ends there. He has returned to work, stationed at Lake Wenatchee, where his primary assignment is on an engine crew. He offers this epilogue.

The four firefighters we left out there will forever be a part of us. I tell this story so the public can understand and empathize, and so my fellow firefighters can better understand what they may have to confront. I plan on returning to my duties and fighting for more safety training so others don't meet the same fate as Karen, Jessica, Tom and Devin.


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