LOS ANGELES (AP) — A firefighter who barely survived being overrun by flames while battling a Southern California wildfire last October was released from a hospital to cheers on Wednesday after undergoing more than a dozen surgeries.
Dylan Van Iwaarden sat up in a gurney as he was wheeled out of Orange County Global Medical Center in Santa Ana.
“I’m so thankful for everybody being here for me. It was tragic then, but I’m getting better,” Van Iwaarden said. His arms were bandaged and he wore a hat and mask but deep scars were visible on his cheeks and hands.
His fellow firefighters and members of law enforcement applauded and high-fived him as he was wheeled down a sidewalk to a waiting ambulance. Van Iwaarden will undergo rehabilitation at the University of California, Irvine Medical Center.
He told the crowd that he was “ready to get going, get moving on” and was excited by the thought that he might someday return to service.
Van Iwaarden was initially placed in a medically induced coma, spent 114 days in the hospital’s burn center and underwent 17 surgeries, according to the Orange County Fire Authority.
He needed operations to replace dead skin with skin from other parts of his body, doctors said.
Van Iwaarden was 26 when he and another Orange County Fire Authority firefighter, Phi Le, 31, suffered second- and third-degree burns while setting backfires during the Silverado Fire that began on Oct. 26 near Irvine.
Le was released from a hospital in December. Officials haven’t given details of his condition at the request of his family.
The blaze south of Los Angeles was contained in November after destroying or damaging 14 homes and other buildings. The fire and another blaze just to the north at one point forced the evacuation of 130,000 people.
A crew of eight was setting backfires to burn fuel and create a buffer against the advancing flames when a second fire ignited. The crew was overrun and had no time to deploy portable fire shelters.
Six reported singed hair, eyebrows and eyelashes. Van Iwaarden suffered burns to 65% of his body and Le had burns to 50% of his body.
Plastic surgeon Dr. Peter Grossman said Van Iwaarden finally leaving the hospital “is a huge leap forward” for his recovery, but it’s still “a long road ahead.” The founder of Los Angeles-based Grossman Burn Centers did not treat Van Iwaarden, but he’s performed hundreds of surgeries on burn victims during a 25-year career.
Van Iwaarden could face months, if not years, of rehab, including physical therapy, reconstructive surgery and psychological treatment, Grossman said Wednesday.
“The physical therapy will be focused on getting back his range of motion and regaining strength in his hands and arms. Things like making a fist can be very difficult because of scarring. He might need to be trained to walk again,” Grossman said.
Fire officials said Van Iwaarden and the rest of the crew were trying to fight a spot fire that exploded from the size of a living room rug to a 10,000-square-foot (929-square-meter) inferno in just five to 10 seconds.
A Fire Authority investigation concluded that the crew shouldn’t have been in the area because of extraordinarily dangerous conditions. The report said firefighters left themselves in danger from unburned fuels, increasing erratic winds and frequent spot fires.
The speed at which the fire could spread under conditions at the time was at “historical levels,” nearly three times as fast as the previous record for that location, according to the report. There was a possibility that wind-driven embers from the backfires themselves may have trapped the firefighters.
“There are very few types of trauma worse than a burn injury,” Grossman said. “Once you leave the hospital you’re only halfway home.”
The cause of the fire remains under investigation.