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Happenstance ignited longtime career for fire captain

By: Penne Usher Journal Staff Writer
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It was in 1985 that Capt. Bob Drexel, then 22, became a firefighter, almost by accident. Drexel, 45, has worked at Cal Fire Station 10 in Auburn for almost a year. It was a fluke, he said Monday. My buddy said they were hiring and picked up an application for me. Somehow I got the job. I had no idea what it was going to entail. He started his firefighting career in Nevada County at Columbia Hill. Drexel, whose ancestors founded Drexel University in Philadelphia in 1891, transferred from the Colfax station to the Auburn station last spring. Drexel was promoted to the rank of captain in 2001 while working at the Washington Ridge station. After my first wildland fire I was hooked, he said. Drexel was born in Minot, N.D. and raised primarily in Nebraska. An avid outdoorsman, Drexel said when not working he likes to hunt and fish. Fishing is usually at Clear Lake for large-mouth bass. Hunting for elk or deer often takes him to Colorado. With no children and no wife, Drexel, spends a lot of his spare time with his 13-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever, Dakota. He's responded to more calls in his career than he can count, but with a little prompting didn't hesitate to discuss a couple of wildland fires that stood out in his memory bank. The Paradise fire in San Diego started on Oct. 26, 2003 and burned 57,000 acres during its 10-day rampage. It destroyed 176 residences, 192 outbuildings, 75 vehicles and killed two people. Several firefighters and civilians were injured. I was the division supervisor down there without any resources. It was early in the game and I had to triple-shift myself, Drexel said. I was trying to come up with a game plan. He said he commandeered a bulldozer and a hand crew, located an access road, and planned to hold a fire line. But the fire took an unexpected turn and headed for the crews. I told the guys to get in their (engine) and get out, Drexel said. We let it burn on by us. Drexel's supervisor, Battalion Chief Jeff Brand, spoke highly of the captain. I have the utmost confidence in Bobby, Brand said. He keeps the troops safe and the morale up. Clint Brown, 39, has been with Cal Fire's Auburn station for the past six months under Drexel. He has a lot of experience and is a great guy to work for, Brown said. He's a fun guy to work for and keeps things lighthearted. We have fun, but always get the job done. Structure protection is another aspect of Drexel's job. During a wildland fire an engine crew is often dispatched to protect homes from a moving blaze. In the late '90s Drexel said he was on the Pendola fire in the Dobbins area working structure protection. The Pendola fire burned more than 11,000 acres in October 1999. Drexel and his crew saw flames running up a hill and assumed it was the main fire. It wasn't. Drexel noticed the main wind-driven blaze heading directly toward homes ““ where no fire crews were stationed. We went from house to house to save them, he said. We were very lucky no houses burned. Drexel is multifaceted in his firefighting duties and has worked as a helicopter-attack captain and with the National Guard as their fire expert. The Journal's Penne Usher can be reached at penneu@goldcountrymedia. com or post a comment on auburnjournal.com.