When Greg Gutierrez heard the word "Malibu" on the radio three weeks ago, he traveled back several years in his mind. No longer was Captain Gutierrez stationed at a desk inside California's Office of Emergency Services — he was back in the Malibu hills again, fighting wildfires in the weeks leading up to Halloween.
"I ran a 17-man hand crew for five years," the 45-year-old bass pro and fire captain said. "We used inmates from the California Department of Corrections and trained them to cut fire lines down there."
He remembered the split-second decisions he had to make as their captain, the incredibly massive flames, and the task of moving his hand crew without the support of a fire engine.
And even though the inmates-turned-firefighters carried chainsaws, specialized firefighting axes called pulaskis, bush-axes, and rake-like hoes called McClouds, it was Gutierrez' job to keep them in line using a ballpoint pen.
"Those guys knew they were there to do a job," Gutierrez said. "And we all did our best to help people out."
The Midnight Shift
This is the so-called off-season for Gutierrez, a Bassmaster Elite Series angler and two-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier who fishes tournaments only on his vacation time from California's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (or Cal Fire, for short).
Even with two Bassmaster Classics and two third-place Elite Series finishes to his credit, Gutierrez still considers himself first and foremost a firefighter.
On the tournament trail, he has been known to bunk at fire stations, hold fire safety clinics for families, and sports a hat and jersey emblazoned with stylized flames.
The final Elite Series event concluded in September. For Gutierrez, October has meant coordinating emergency efforts and informing people about the Southern California wildfires that have driven almost half a million people from their homes.
"Before these latest fires," Gutierrez said, "they had me working a class on public speaking, so public information officers would know the correct fire service policies and assure that the media get true and accurate information."
But as the high Santa Ana winds (or what Gutierrez calls "the blowtorch effect") spread wildfire at a frantic pace, Cal Fire officials postponed the class. And Gutierrez, with his experience in fire prevention, education and public information, was ordered to Sacramento.
Although the joint information center requires a three-hour drive from Gutierrez's Red Bluff, Calif., home, "it's where all involved agencies can be in one building and face-to-face," Gutierrez said. His duties included talking to the media between 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
"People around the world want to know what's going on here, but many can't send resources," Gutierrez said. "So they will pull photos off the wires and then I'll give live interviews and a blow-by-blow of the situation."
The jargon and acronyms in firefighting make covering the fires difficult, Gutierrez said. Adding to the confusion, meanings and explanations are often lost in translation when Gutierrez gives interviews to foreign media. "But it's hard to explain our situation — even here in the States," Gutierrez said.
After he and a reporter had gone over the importance of defensible space — a 100-foot buffer between a structure and vegetation designed to protect homes and firefighters in a wildfire — she asked whether the lack of such space was a problem in San Diego.
"Fifteen hundred homes in San Diego have burned up as a result of this fire, so I'd say, yeah, it's a problem," Gutierrez replied.
Firefighting has been a 27-year career for Gutierrez. Now, his son, Gregory Gutierrez Jr., is following him into the field — in this case, quite literally. The 19-year-old is battling infernos "on the lines" in Southern California.
"At first I thought every kid wants to be like their dad," Gutierrez said. "But this job tests you mentally and physically because you're not just running into burning houses, you're pulling a backpack up a hill, helping an elderly person who's fallen down or cutting a mangled body out of a car.
"I wondered if he could handle it — and he's proven himself over and over again that he can."
Gutierrez communicates with his son via text messages, constantly reminding Gregory Jr. of his "10 and 18s" (the 10 standard firefighting orders and 18 situations to watch out for). Dad also reinforces the importance of using downtime to get sleep.
"A lot of guys want to eat, but sleep deprivation is your enemy out here," Gutierrez said. "When I'm hungry, my eyes are still open."
Gutierrez said that while he would love to be on the lines with his son, he knows in his current role, he's taking on an important responsibility for him and thousands of other firefighters as well.
"Obviously, his safety is very important to me, but so is the safety of all of your brothers and sisters out there," Gutierrez said about his son and colleagues on the lines. "Because they are all dads, brothers, sons, daughters, aunts and friends, too."
Fire and Water
Long before Gutierrez would become a firefighter, he had a strong passion for wetting a line. As a kid, he would skateboard to his favorite fishing holes, fish all day and return home spent. On nice days his mother, also an avid angler, would tell the school nurse he was sick. Together they would then fish for German brown trout in the lakes, streams and rivers around Mt. Shasta.
Even as Gutierrez took up wrestling in high school and college, he never strayed far from his fishing pole. When he left the physical education program at Shasta College to pursue firefighting, he still found relaxation flipping a jig on the banks of Lake Shasta.
One day a unit chief named Dan invited Gutierrez to fish with him in a club tournament.
"I knew nothing about it, but thought it was so cool," Gutierrez said. "After that, I joined the club and ended up fishing with Steve Klein, [Elite Series pro angler] Gary Klein's younger brother, in another tournament."
Soon, Gutierrez entered a professional tournament as a boater and took second-place after a win on the amateur side at the same lake.
"I fished out 1996 as an amateur," Gutierrez said, "but I knew I had really found something."
The next year, he fished several regional tours as a professional, and, in his words, "held his own." When the new "Angler's Choice" circuit emerged from Texas, Gutierrez won a tournament on its western swing.
"That year there was a three-way Angler of the Year battle between Dean Rojas, Aaron Martens and me," he said. "And I won."
Within a couple of years, Gutierrez had established himself as a serious professional angler.
"Then BASS came out here, and that was the dream," he said.
Gutierrez won the 2004 BASS Western Open, and took fourth-place in the BASS Elite Series Rookie of the Year race in 2005.
Spreading the Word
The travel and exposure Gutierrez enjoys as a pro angler have allowed him to evangelize fire safety across the country.
"I started contacting local firehouses to see if they'd like me to speak, do a meet-and-greet and give some free fire safety advice from the point of view of a professional bass angler and professional firefighter," Gutierrez said.
"Most take me up on the offer.
"Fire happens all over, it's not just a California problem," he continued. "Just look at South Georgia. And that's exactly why I spend a lot of the time promoting fire safety out on the tour."
The three major points Gutierrez stresses are fire safety, fire awareness and the promotion of defensible space — which can be as simple as clearing combustibles off your lawn.
"I'd say be diligent and do some homework," he said. "There are so many easy things to do to protect your home and your family, but you'll be helping the firefighters, as well."