Statue to honor Tracy firefighters left behind in Southern California fire evacuation
Reserve firefighter Terry Langley holds a scale model for the Tracy Firefighters Monument. The nearly finished, life-sized statue was left behind in Crestline. (Enrique Gutierrez/San Joaquin News Service)

Crestline, a small town in the San Bernardino foothills, is entirely deserted except for firefighters trying to protect it from the blazes raging through Southern California.

But in the Noble family's home on Oak Drive, a solitary figure stands downstairs, leaning on a firefighter's ax and holding a Tracy Fire Department helmet.

The 6-foot-4-inch figure is a clay sculpture by Crestline artist Lawrence Noble, finished a week ago and bound for the front lawn of Tracy Fire Station 91, at Ninth Street and Central Avenue. Now the statue, along with the Nobles' house and the rest of Crestline, is in the hands of fate and the firefighters Noble has spent his career honoring in sculpture.

Tracy reserve firefighter Terry Langley commissioned the sculpture on behalf of his nonprofit group Hometown Heritage, and had planned to visit Noble's home studio this weekend to see the finished product.

"I called him Monday morning and there was no answer, so I was a little concerned," knowing fires were threatening the area, Langley said. "He called back Tuesday morning, and that's when I found out he'd been evacuated and the risk there was substantial."

Noble, his wife and their teenage son and daughter left their home Saturday, just an hour before the evacuation became mandatory. One of their neighbors is an executive with a property management company, and he found the family a place to stay in Marina del Rey, a Los Angeles beach community.

"At the very least, it's a surreal vacation," Noble said by cell phone on Wednesday, as he walked down the Venice Pier.

Noble said news is scarce from Crestline, a town of about 10,000 people near Southern California's ski resorts that rarely makes the news in Los Angeles.

He does know that as of Wednesday, his house was still standing.

"The situation is so fluid," Noble said. "As soon as you think everything is OK, the winds change and something flares up."

Noble's house is on a hill, and when he left on Saturday, the fire had reached the other side of the hill. "We went to the top of the hill, and we could see the flames," he said.

Since then, three buildings at the top of the hill, less than a mile from his house, have burned, he said.

Along with his family's photos and other essentials, Noble took his designs and paperwork for the Tracy firefighter statue when the family evacuated. He said he would be ready to sculpt it again, but Langley said he hasn't considered such a worst-case scenario.

Langley said he still plans to visit Noble and see the statue, as soon as they can get back into Crestline. If Hometown Heritage gives the statue its final approval, a mold will be taken and the sculpture will be cast in bronze.

The sculpture will cost a little more than $100,000, Langley said, and Hometown Heritage has raised about half of the money so far. The bronze version is scheduled for installation at the fire station in May, but Langley said the fire could set the project back.

The irony of the situation is clear to Noble. He is an honorary firefighter with two San Bernardino County fire departments, and he's spent the past 15 years of his career specializing in large public sculptures, often of firefighters. His sculpture "Holding the Line" is part of the California Firefighters' Memorial in Sacramento's Capitol Park.

"When I was invited to work on the California Firefighters Memorial in 1996, I got a chance to meet some of the best people in the world," he said. "I bonded with them and they bonded with me, and I've had a chance to honor them in my work."

The Capitol Park sculpture depicts four firefighters in action, while Noble's statue for the Central Avenue firehouse in Tracy is an archetypal firefighter standing with his ax in one hand and his jacket in the other. "The firefighters of Tracy are very, very lucky, because they've never lost someone in the line of duty," Noble said. "What I chose to portray was just an honest day's work, and the pride a single firefighter would take in doing the best job he could."

About 30 miles from Crestline, in Mount Baldy, eight Tracy firefighters are battling the same blaze that threatens Noble's house. The group will return to Tracy today, and will be replaced by eight more Tracy firefighters, said Mark Mehring, a battalion commander with the Tracy Fire Department.

Mehring said the department will keep rotating teams into San Bernardino County until their help is no longer needed. There is "zero containment" now, he said, and no real hope of progress until the weather changes.

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