A MAN ALONE: It was beastly hot, well over 100 degrees, when Santa Barbara city firefighter Stephen J. Masto hiked out alone to join a crew battling a Santa Ynez Valley blaze on August 27, 1999.
He never returned alive. Heat stroke killed 28-year-old Masto as he scrambled up a steep, rocky slope on his hands and knees to carry out his job as a fire-line medic.
Masto’s “band of brothers” at the Santa Barbara City Fire Department have never forgotten him. In view of the 19 men who died in that Arizona wildfire last week, it’s fitting to recall the city’s only firefighter lost in the line of duty during the department’s history, dating to 1874.
“It’s gut-wrenching to recall,” Captain Chris Mailes told me.
A group of eight department rookies spent their last day of training recently hiking to where Masto’s body was found. A cross marks the spot. Every rookie group is taken on the same journey, and every year several Santa Barbara firefighters make a pilgrimage to the place, maintain the cross, and reflect on a young man who had so much to give, and who gave his all, according to Mailes, a 20-year city firefighter.
Making the difficult trek “is a great way” to emphasize the safety lessons taught at the academy, as well as pay respects to Masto, said Tony Pighetti, president of the Santa Barbara City Firefighters Association. “It’s a big part of the academy.”
The Stephen J. Masto Valor Award, kept at Station 1, is presented to department firefighters to honor actions beyond the line of duty. His photo hangs in every city station house, and his badge number can be found “affixed to helmets, uniforms, turnout [gear], lockers, and badges,” according to Capt. Mailes, a strong admirer of the young man.
“People have pictures, his business card, and other reminders in their clothes lockers,” Capt. Mailes said. “He is still here at SBFD. We are doing our best to keep him alive in our hearts.”
Masto’s death not only caused emotional shock waves but resulted in a serious reevaluation of department policies. For one thing, “We don’t want anyone hiking by himself in that kind of weather,” Mailes told me. In the 180-acre Camuesa Fire, near Paradise Road in Los Padres National Forest, the well-trained Masto was assigned as a medic to join a mop-up crew from another agency. But the crew had already left the base camp, so Masto hit the trail alone to join them.
There was confusion. “They didn’t realize he was coming,” Mailes told me. “They didn’t know he was supposed to show up.” So when Masto didn’t arrive, no one radioed back to base camp asking questions.
When Masto didn’t return to camp when his 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. shift ended, there wasn’t undue concern amid the comings and goings of fire crews. But at 9:30, when there was no sign of him, a full-fledged search was launched.
The sheriff’s search-and-rescue team went out, the sheriff’s helicopter took wing, and a Forest Service team searched for the missing man. At about 9 a.m. the next morning, Masto’s body was found.
The fire itself only covered 180 acres and was put out the next day. “Not at all worth a life,” Mailes said.
“Steve had joined the fire department earlier that year and had quickly won over the hearts of even the most stoic firefighters,” Mailes wrote later. “His infectious smile, great attitude and general love of the job and life were evident each day.
“I took an immediate liking to Steve. We had worked together a lot at Station 2. He had quickly learned the job and was well on his way to a successful career.
“Unfortunately, things went dreadfully wrong that day and his career was cut short. I just wish we could have changed things. It was a series of mistakes; one cannot be singled out. But the mistakes compounded and he paid the ultimate price.”
Firefighting is dangerous. “We live with that every day.”
On August 31, a few days after Masto’s death, a procession of fire engines from the city and other departments made a sad procession up State Street to the Rose Garden across from the mission for a memorial.
Masto’s wife, Lisa, later remarried and had children. City firefighters still visit with his mother on occasion. In the station houses around town, he’ll never be forgotten. And certainly not by Mailes. “He was a wonderful human being.”