California Loses First Female Firefighter

A member of an elite helicopter wildfire crew has become the first female firefighter from the California Department of Forestry (search) to die in the line of duty, state officials said Monday.

Officials could give few details about what happened when the seven-member crew was apparently overrun by flames Sunday in rugged terrain of the Stanislaus National Forest.

The department identified the woman as Eva Schicke (search), 24, of Arnold.

"This is a very difficult day for our department," said Jim Wright, chief of fire protection at the CDF. "It is just a reminder of the danger our firefighters face on a daily basis."

Wright said the crew appeared to have been on the ground about an hour. Their job was to use hand tools to build a fire break ahead of the blaze, which had grown to 800 acres Monday and was 20 percent contained.

Phyllis Banducci, a CDF spokeswoman, said investigators know little about the accident except that it happened in a canyon area and firefighters recorded a change in the wind at about the same time.

Six other firefighters suffered minor injuries.

A college student, Schicke had spent 41/2 seasons working as a part-time firefighter.

Because the death happened in a national forest and involved firefighters working for the state, it will be investigated by federal and state fire officials, CDF Director Dale Geldert (search) said.

The department's helicopter team members are considered among the best firefighters in the system, Wright said.

In Arnold, mourners erected a roadside memorial that included flowers and balloons arranged between a pair of boots, a helmet, gloves and a shovel. A bulletin board included notes from friends and colleagues.

George Muedeking, Schicke's academic adviser at California State University Stanislaus, said she often returned to register for fall classes wearing military fatigues and still smelling of smoke.

"Her commitment was very strong when she decided to do something," he said. "She really saw it through."