Courage Under Fire: Eleven year-old assists evacuation efforts during wildfire

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By Cpl. Dylan Chagnon | Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton
MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. —
For many children on any given day, completing simple chores after finishing their homework is the extent of their worries. On July 6, 2018, in a neighborhood aboard Camp Pendleton, one 11-year-old’s actions were anything but typical.

On that day, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton experienced a series of wildfires including one threatening the South De Luz housing area. Because of the proximity of this fire and the nearly 2,800 residents living there, the base issued a mandatory evacuation.

“I remember it being chaotic; we had several residents that didn’t know where to go or what to do,” said John Lopez, who at the time was the maintenance manager of the De Luz Family Housing Group. “Me and my team were thankful that we’d built a good relationship with our residents because it enabled them to trust us and our direction to keep them and their families safe.”

During an evacuation of this nature, most would cling to their family members, pets and a few priceless possessions. For 11-year-old Gavin Zeek however, alerting his neighbors to the danger approaching their housing community was his only priority.

“I was evacuating a lot of our residents during the fire, and it was said to me by several residents that a young man was knocking on doors and helping strap children into their seats,” said Lopez. “While he was shaken and scared, he was still helping his friends and their families make it out safe.”

Lopez lives across the street from Gavin and his family and witnessed him running around the neighborhood, knocking on his neighbors’ doors and loading up his family’s car, as well as assisting his neighbors in gathering their belongings so they could evacuate safely. This was not the first wildfire Gavin and his family experienced during their time living on MCB Camp Pendleton. Gavin recalled the anxiety he faced as a younger child when a similar event occurred, and could relate to the fear that some of the residents may have been feeling, which inspired him to rush to their aid.

We were here for another fire, and that was real scary,” said Gavin. “I knew the feeling of having a fire so close to your house and I didn’t want anyone else to feel scared. I thought it was going to get real close to our house and maybe burn it down, so I wanted to make sure everyone was aware that there was a fire close to us and that they were safe.”

The fire, dubbed “The Pendleton Complex Fire,” ultimately burned more than 1600 acres in total with more than 560 acres threatening the base’s mainside location including the De Luz and O’Neill housing areas. As firefighters with the Camp Pendleton Fire Department (CPFD) successfully pushed the fire away from both housing areas before it could cause any damage, residents were allowed to return home the following day.

“Our initial hose lay was on the northeast side of Lake O’Neil, but then [the fire] ended up making a push towards the De Luz Housing area,” said Chris Dubiansky, a firefighter at Station 3, CPFD, who was on the line directly combating the fierce blaze. “We regrouped, and then headed over to [De Luz Housing] to make a stand and protect all the houses from the fire.”

Gavin’s selfless actions July 6th demonstrated that he was willing put his own fears aside to help in a time of crisis. As a result, he was presented with a certificate of appreciation from the CPFD at the annual National Night Out Festival, held at the De Luz Community Center on Oct. 2, 2018.

“This day and age, we can’t expect teenagers and young kids to preserve life, because as parents, we feel that’s our job,” said Lopez. “I was amazed at the fact that he took charge and decided to help people, save lives even. You can’t put it into words. [Gavin] proved to be an amazing young man and I feel blessed to know that he made this positive impact on our lives. It goes without being said that he is a local hero.”

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