Front Liner

As the Creek Fire raged, LAFD Captain Chris Bustamante fought round the clock to protect his home turf.

  • Category
  • Written by
    Rachel Heller Zaimont
  • Photographed by
    Michael Becker

The dispatch call came at 3:44 a.m. on December 5, alerting the crew at Fire Station 98 that a wildfire was burning near Sunland. Firefighters hustled downstairs and grabbed their turnout gear. In the dark outside the Pacoima station, “You could smell something in the air, like someone was barbecuing,” recalls Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) Captain Chris Bustamante.

As the engine roared toward LittleTujunga Canyon Road, Bustamante and the members of Station 98’s B Platoon began to sense the scope of the blaze. “We could see a huge glow in the mountains where we were heading,” Bustamante says. “It looked like the sun was setting at three in the morning.”
It was a sunset that lasted for two weeks. The Creek Fire raged in the northern San Fernando Valley, scorching over 15,000 acres east of Sylmar and prompting mandatory evacuations. Driven by fierce winds, the blaze jumped the 210 Freeway, charred more than 100 homes and ranches and blanketed the Valley with suffocating smoke and ash—but as the winds slowed, firefighters gained the upper hand.

On the front lines, Bustamante commanded a strike team comprised of five engine companies. Their work was crucial in the race to combat the spread of the fire in its harrowing early hours.

First stop: Maclay Street north of the 210. Bustamante was in charge of protecting everything—including new tract homes butted up against the foothills. His team alerted local neighborhoods that the fire was coming, and residents scrambled to flee. Embers from the blaze were already alighting in backyards, setting wicker furniture and trash cans aflame. Bustamante’s crew went house to house, putting out small fires wherever they could.

As the sun rose, he received a call for backup. The wind had whipped embers into an open attic and the home’s second story was ablaze. Gusts of 60 to 70 miles per hour nearly knocked the firefighters off the roof, but they managed to quell the fire and save the house—and the residences surrounding it.

But wind was only one challenge first responders faced that day. Low water pressure was another. The depleted water supply dealt a blow to the effort, and firefighters watched helplessly as structures were consumed by the fast-moving flames. “It’s one of the worst feelings you have as a firefighter. We say it’s like watching your mother get beat up and not being able to do anything about it,” Bustamante says. “These peoples’ houses were being destroyed. Knowing it’s our job to protect lives and property—we take a personal toll.”

With 23 years in the LAFD under his belt, Bustamante has fought hundreds of fires, but the Creek Fire hit particularly close to home. At the North Hills house where the 46-year-old lives with his wife and three daughters, ash carpeted his backyard and seeped in through the ducts.

Bustamante and his team fought the Creek Fire for five days straight. When local evacuation orders were lifted, the homeowner whose attic he saved called the station to thank him. He explains with modesty, “I still have a hard time accepting their thanks. I wish I could have done more.”

Working in the Valley has special meaning to the Granada Hills native. “Being a local boy who was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, I take pride in protecting the area,” he says. “That’s why I do what I do.”