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1991 Firestorm Memories | Frances Saves The Payroll

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Frances Heath

The weather seemed very strange at Lake Temescal on Sunday morning, Oct. 20, Park Supervisor Frances Heath recalled. “It was almost ominous how dense and quiet the air was. A lot of people said they had a foreboding.”

When the fire from Saturday re-ignited, the smoke and flames were clearly visible from the lake. The only staff on duty were Heath and a lifeguard.

By noon, Heath could see the fire burning in the houses across Highway 24 from the Temescal swim beach. Five minutes later the fire had jumped the freeway and ignited brush on the slope by the park’s north entrance. As Heath and the lifeguard approached, flames roared up the hillside and into ridgetop neighborhoods. The fire later also crossed Highway 13 into the park.

Heath suffered from asthma, but said she wasn’t too concerned. In case of need, she borrowed a respirator from the lifeguards’ office.

Pandemonium prevailed during the next several hours as Heath and other park district staff helped park visitors to evacuate, ferried District vehicles to safer locations, and tried to cope with increasing numbers of sightseers who chose Temescal as the perfect spot to photograph the advancing flames. For a time she had to evacuate Temescal herself.

Many people seemed to be unaware of the gravity of the situation. Out of concern for this, Heath drove around the park neighborhood, urging residents to gather their valuables and leave.

She also was able to accomplish two critical tasks. She set a sprinkler to run continuously, wetting down the roof of the District’s controller’s office next to the swim beach. She also removed the money from the safe in the park office.

Heath considered trying to save the park office, shop building and a couple of small storage sheds, but decided there were too many trees and other flammable materials around. All were destroyed in the fire, but the beach house was unscathed.

Steve Jones, the District’s chief of park operations at the time, arrived at Temescal about 4:30 p.m. with District Assistant General Manager Jerry Kent. Heath drove up to them through the smoke and destruction. “Don’t worry, boys, I saved your paychecks,” she declared.

In doing so, she also saved a historic building, constructed by Depression-era work crews, which was the District’s first in-park headquarters. Besides earning accolades from the District, both for her actions and her eloquence, Heath received an award from the insurance company whose policy covered the building.

The experience changed her outlook. “Ever since then, I’m more apprehensive about the possibilities of disaster happening,” she said. “It sort of shapes your perception of what’s actually possible.”

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