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Trio ignores wildfire danger to save house

Armed only with shovels and a garden hose, three San Diego-area men fought the wildfires that consumed so many homes, and saved one of them.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

With flames bearing down on the family homestead in rural Fallbrook, north of San Diego, Bill Shinner summoned his son, Scott, to help save some mementos and memories. Instead, armed with a garden hose and shovels and aided by family friend Casey Sovacool, they saved the house.

It was, said TODAY co-host Matt Lauer, a don’t-try-this-at-home moment that could have had a very unhappy ending. Main roads into the area had been closed down, Scott Shinner, who lives in San Diego, took back roads to get to the home, while Sovacool, who lives inside the fire perimeter, drove directly over.

Shinner arrived around 10:30 on Monday night and Sovacool joined them between 2 and 3 a.m. on Tuesday.

“You’re absolutely right, it could have turned tragic,” Scott Shinner told Lauer on Thursday. “We made the decision to stay because this house has a lot of value to us. A lot of our friends and family hold this home dear to us. We wanted to do whatever we could to protect it. It means a great deal to my mom and my dad.”

When Scott Shinner and Sovacool got to the house, Bill Shinner asked them if they wanted to try to save the place. The fire was advancing through a neighbor’s avocado grove, but it was not raging.

“The winds were calm at the time,” Sovacool said. “So we didn’t have the 25-feet-high monster flames. They were waist-high — maybe got up to the shoulder a few times.”

Sovacool, whose father had been a volunteer firefighter, thought they could keep the flames at bay by shoveling dirt on them and smothering them. Bill Shinner used his garden hose to wet down the roof of his home and that of a neighbor. Although the fire got within a few feet of the neighbor’s house, the three managed to save it; a home across the street was destroyed. The blaze was part of the Rice Fire, which has consumed 7,500 acres along with 206 homes and two businesses in Fallbrook.

It’s a rural area, and the Shinners and Sovacool, who is a teacher getting his degree in special education and an assistant high school football coach, grew up believing that you obey the authorities. But with all firefighters were occupied with other emergencies, they did what rural Americans have been doing from the nation’s birth – they relied on themselves.

In a pre-interview, they said that there are open areas on the hill on which the Shinner home is situated and safe escape routes if things got out of hand.

“These boys, I’m really, really proud of them,” Bill Shinner told Lauer. “I said, ‘Let’s get in there,’ and basically they went for it and got it done.”

Bill Shinner, 57, said that Sovacool was the one who convinced everyone they had a chance to save the house. “He was the one who initiated everything,” Scott Shinner said.

Bill Shinner said they had no close calls during the three hours when they saved their home and that of their neighbor.

“Obviously, safety was in our first interests, but we thought we felt we could do a good job and  keep it safe,” Scott Shinner said. As for the danger, he added, “You really don’t think about it. You just think about the task you have at hand and getting the fire put out.”

Scott Shinner did have one accident, though. When they’d put the fire out and were walking in the pre-dawn darkness, he fell into a 6-foot-deep hole.

Luckily, he wasn’t hurt.

“In this situation, it came out perfectly. If we weren’t there that evening and we weren’t watching things, this house would have been burned,” Bill Shinner said.