Standing in the path of raging flames Tuesday, I had a conversation with a firefighter that left an impression.

It was firefighting stripped down to its most basic ideals along Millar Ranch Road, where I was watching crews defend homes against the flames: The notion that firefighters were putting their lives on the line to protect strangers’ homes from burning down.

But that very idea was the motivation for Zachary O’Neill, a CalFire engineer out of Jamacha. He and his colleagues from Engine Company 3392 had worked 38 hours straight, from 10 a.m. Sunday to midnight Monday, slept for barely five hours and headed back out to the lines.

He stood atop Millar Ranch Road, looking down on a smoke-filled burning valley. Fire had crept up into low-lying ice plant blanketing the backyard where he was stationed. O’Neill was there, hose at the ready, to keep the flames at bay.

“It’s why everybody wanted to do it as a kid,” he said. The reward was “the heartfelt thank yous.”


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