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Long Beach lifeguard turns Oregon firefighter

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A Long Beach lifeguard traveled more than 2,700 miles to Oregon to help hundreds of firefighters and victims who are battling large wildfires, which have destroyed thousands of homes, businesses and thousands of acres in their path.

John Burke, a 37-year veteran of the Long Beach Lifeguard patrol, did not sit idly during the worst months of the pandemic. Instead, he used that time to become certified as a wildland firefighter.

Burke has been an advanced emergency medical technician since 2006 and prior to that had more than 20 years as an EMT. However, for safety reasons, he needed the proper training to fight fires in Oregon.

Burke, 53, credited his work as a lifeguard for helping him get through the training.

“I think that what enabled me, at my age, to pass the physical fitness test is my work with the lifeguards,” Burke said. “

“Chief [Paul] Gillespie has created and instilled an atmosphere of physical fitness and working out among the lifeguards. That’s what enabled me to pass and work with guys that are one third and maybe half my age.”

Gillespie praised Burke’s work ethic and added that he is a mentor to younger lifeguards.

“He get’s up on the chair [lifeguard stand] and he really tutors the kids in the lifeguarding,” Gillespie said. “He makes them better and he’s always a very positive influence.”

Gillespie described Burke as “one of the great lifeguards” the patrol has and said they were very lucky to have him.

Burke, who had signed a two week contract with an employer to go to Oregon to assist firefighters, arrived Sept. 12, just days after the peak of the fires. When he got there, only about 20 other EMS workers were there to assist firefighter and victims.

“What I went to do was to provide advanced life support to the firefighters and the affected public,” Burke said. He added that he went to support other firefighters including the Prineville Hotshots, a 20-man crew that had assisted in victims.

Burke and his colleagues were battling Beachie Creek, a wildfire that has claimed at least five lives, destroyed thousands of structures and scorched nearly 200,000 acres. His unit was the only ambulance service for many miles, making it harder for residents to get help.

During his time there, Burke said, he saw burned schools, motels, houses and even a burned firehouse.

He recalled a time during Superstorm Sandy, when the Long Beach Lions Club set up a grill outdoors and were feeding anyone who was hungry. When he was at the City of Gates in Oregon, he saw a familiar sight, where the local Lions Club fed first responders and victims from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. The fire had ravished the city, leaving many without shelter or food.

Though many residents had lost much, Burke praised their resiliency.

“I think that the people took it very well,” Burke said. “When I say houses were burned down, all that was left was the chimney. House after house after house.”

He added that many of the residents thanked him and his colleagues for their service. During his time at the site, Burke said he would wake up at 5:30 a.m. and finish his shift around 9:30 p.m.

While stationed at the Town of Detroit, Burke recalled a specific call where he had to rescue a woman who had fallen into a cesspool because the heat of the wildfires had melted part of the structure, just one of several emergencies

Burke returned to Long Beach Sunday evening, Oct. 4. When he left, there were 75 EMTs and 395 firefighters remaining ­— less than half from when he arrived.

He lauded many firefighters, including some from Canada that came to help with the fires.

“I met a lot of good people,” Burke said. “It was eye-opening.

Burke, however, is no stranger to helping victims of natural disasters. Just two years ago he and another Long Beach lifeguard traveled to North Carolina to help victims of Hurricane Florence. Burke was also a first responder at Ground Zero.

Burke, who is also a 10-year veteran ski patroller, said life is short and he just wants to get the most out of it. He added that he is considering going to California, which is also suffering from wildfires, to lend a hand to those in need.

“I like to use my medical skills to help people,” Burke said. “That’s just the way I turned out.”