NOVATO, Calif. – The firefighter killed when a fast-moving wildfire overtook his four-man crew as they tried to save a home was remembered at his home firehouse Thursday as a hard worker dedicated to the job.
"He wasn't sent there. He asked to go," Deputy Novato Fire Chief Dan Northern said, fighting back tears as he stood beside a shrine of flowers, photos and the gear Steve Rucker (search) had left behind.
Rucker, 38, was the first firefighter killed battling the blazes that have ravaged Southern California since the Santa Ana winds began blowing through the parched hills last week. Twenty people have died in wildfires still raging in San Diego, San Bernardino (search) and Ventura counties.
Rucker and his crew from the Novato Fire Protection District (search), north of San Francisco, were in San Diego County on Wednesday fighting a wildfire that has burned more than 230,000 acres and nearly 1,100 homes.
They were trying to save a mountain home near Wynola when the fire flared up. The crew was overrun so quickly they didn't have time to reach their engine, said Fred Batchelor, a state fire marshal. He said they tried to take refuge in the house they were trying to protect.
"It's calm one moment, and the next moment you have an explosive situation," Batchelor said. "In this case, it flared up and rolled in there and engulfed them."
One of the three surviving crew members, Capt. Doug McDonald, was in critical condition Thursday with second-degree burns over 28 percent of his body. The other two, Shawn Kreps and Barrett Smith, were treated for minor burns.
At the site just off Highway 78 and Orchard Lane, yellow police tape cordoned off the area where Rucker died.
Hundreds of miles to the north in Novato, Rucker's fellow firefighters remembered the 11-year veteran firefighter and father of two as they stood around the memorial in the firehouse lobby.
"We're all struggling, trying to make sense of the situation," Northern said.
The shrine grew as firefighters from nearby communities and Novato residents paid their respects.
Friends and colleagues remembered Rucker as gregarious and generous, a man who organized holiday toy drives and volunteered with the Boy Scouts.
Guy Durham lived a few doors down from the Ruckers for several years, but didn't meet Steve Rucker until Durham was in a hospital's intensive care unit after suffering a heart attack.
"We hadn't even met and the very next day he came to the ICU checking on my status and asking if he could do anything," Durham said. "That was the kind of caring person he was."
Fire Chief Jeff Meston prepared to fly to the San Diego area with members of the firefighters' families Thursday. He said Rucker was "really one of those firefighters that we all love."
"He's the kind of guy that organizes for the families -- the Easter Bunny coming, Santa Claus coming for the kids," Meston said. "He was just a great man."
At a morning briefing in the San Diego area, many firefighters wore black bands on their badges in memory of Rucker as they prepared to go battle the blaze that had killed him.
"We know our job is dangerous," said Jim Venneau, a 31-year-old firefighter stationed in nearby Julian. "We know the chances we take when we do these kinds of things. It bothers you. You want to know exactly what happened because you don't want it to happen to you."