Trail Runners Help Extinguish Wildfire

These runners were in the right place at the right time

When you head out for a trail run, you never know what you’ll encounter. Sometimes it’s jaw-dropping scenery, sometimes it’s a encounter with wildlife and sometimes it’s something entirely unexpected. Such was the case on Jan. 6, when professional trail runner Jesse Haynes and some of his running buddies encountered a small, out-of-control brush fire before heading off on a run south of Wrightwood, California, in the Angeles National Forest.

Haynes and fellow runners Keshav Dahiya, Brian Blair and Steve Chrapchynski parked near the start of the annual Angeles Crest 100 starting line and walked 5 minutes up the paved road to meet Dominic and Katie Grossman, who were at their cabin not far from where the trail begins.

“When we first got out of the vehicles, we could see some smoke, but we thought someone had their fireplace going,” said Haynes, 45, who lives in Ladera Ranch south of Los Angeles. “As we were walking and talking, a woman came out on her deck and was screaming, ‘Fire! Fire! Everybody wake up!’ Initially I thought she was yelling at us because we were being too loud. But when she yelled it again, I realized she was serious and could see the smoke billowing up behind the next house, so I bolted down to where the fire was with Keshav and tried to put it out as others went to knock on windows and doors to wake people up.”

When Haynes and Dahiya got to the scene, they found a ground fire about 30 feet wide that included 4-foot flames coming out of a burning tree stump.

“I just went into some kind of mode I’ve never been in and tried to stomp it out,” said Haynes, who won the Chimeara 100 trail race in the mountains southeast of Los Angeles in November. “But that didn’t work because as soon as you pick your foot up, the air gets to it and then it starts up again. So I started brushing all of the leaves away from the fire and that seemed to work. But in the 2 minutes we were doing that, the fire almost doubled in size.”

Others, including the Grossmans, soon arrived to help tamp the fire and remove some of the dried leaves and other fuel. Eventually, someone was able to spray water from a garden hose at the nearest cabin. As they started to get the fire under control, Haynes turned on his GoPro camera to document the incident. (See video below.) By the time firefighters arrived 12 to 15 minutes later, the fire—believed to have started from someone dumping ashes from a grill the night before—was mostly out.

After being sidetracked for 30 minutes, Haynes and his pals eventually went for a 14-mile run with about 6,000 feet of vertical gain/loss up and down 10,064-foot Mt. Baldy. Haynes, an Altra-sponsored runner, is training for an audacious mid-summer ultrarunning double of the June 23-24 Western States 100 in California and the July 20-21 Hardrock 100 in Colorado.

“It was kind of a rough run because I had a cold and then I was overcome by the smoke,” he says. “But it could have been a lot worse. It was a case where we were at the right place at the right time. I know just from living in California for 15 years, once these fires get going you’re not going to get them out so it could have been really bad. If we were 5 to 10 minutes later, it might have been the next bad wildfire in California.”

Brian Metzler

Brian Metzler is the Content Director of MotivRunning.com. He was the founding editor of Trail Runner magazine, a senior editor for Running Times and the editor in chief of Competitor. He’s wear-tested more than 1,500 pairs of running shoes, raced every distance from 50 meters to 100 miles, has finished three Ironman triathlons and enjoys the quirky sport of pack burro racing.