Capt. Maria Cabrera (middle) tends to a recent mishap involving an elderly woman's ankle injury. PHOTO BY DAVE SCHWAB
Maria Cabrera, La Jolla Fire Station 13’s new division captain, started from the ground up — literally.
“I was a civilian working for the city as a weed abatement inspector right after the (1985) Normal Heights fire,” said Cabrera, recently speaking in the converted single-family residence across from La Jolla High School that District 13 firefighters call home.
Inspecting properties for fire breaks, Cabrera worked with firefighters who impressed her. “They had great stories and experiences to share,” she said, noting she tried to talk her sister into becoming a fire fighter herself.
“I didn’t succeed,” she acknowledged. “But while I was trying to talk her into it, I talked myself into it.”
Cabrera had some challenges to overcome. First, there weren’t many female firefighters at the time. And then she became pregnant with her daughter. That, however, didn’t dissuade her from pursuing a new career.
“I started the four-month [San Diego Fire-Rescue Academy] when my daughter was just 5 months old,” she said.
A boot camp for firefighters, the academy teaches prospective firefighters all the rules — and tools — of the trade, everything from emergency medical training (EMT) to how to respond to 911 calls.
“We learned all the aspects of fire fighting, about the trucks, tools and ladders, as well as anything you might deal with on a 911 call: childbirth, traffic accidents, heart attacks, diabetes problems, broken limbs, extracting people trapped in vehicles, et cetera,” Cabrera said.
A first-generation American whose parents had come from Mexico, where firefighting is performed largely by volunteers, Cabrera talked about the appeal of the profession.
“It was a physical job, and I’ve always considered myself... athletic,” she said, adding it’s also a good way of giving back.
“We’re here because we want to help people in their time of need during a crisis,” Cabrera said.
During the interview, a medical call came through. Cabrera and her other three crew members hopped into a fire engine and headed a couple of blocks away to a juice bar in the Village, where an elderly woman had fallen and hurt herself.
On the scene, Cabrera began taking down background medical and personal information from the woman, who was in some pain but comfortable. An ambulance came, transporting her to her hospital of choice. It was a routine call in a community that includes a large number of seniors.
“About 80 percent of our calls are medical,” said Cabrera.
Cabrera, who will retire in another year, said La Jolla was the perfect place for a last stop.
“I’d always looked at this station and said, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be great to have the opportunity to come to La Jolla, such a beautiful area with wonderful people and the opportunity to help a lot of people’? ” “So I decided to switch gears and move over here.”
La Jolla, with its many canyons, presents some unique fire fighting challenges. Getting acquainted with La Jolla and its geography was Cabrera’s first challenge.
“It’s been a real learning curve just learning the streets in the district and how to get around,” she said.
Fire Station 13 serves La Jolla and its surrounding areas over 2.48 square miles. The station was originally opened in 1913 at 7877 Herschel Ave. The building was rebuilt at the same location in 1937. It was moved to its current location, 809 Nautilus St., in March of 1976 at a cost of $75,000 and was remodeled and reopened in 2007.
With the ongoing drought in the middle of the peak of the fire season before winter rains, Cabrera warned residents that “there are hazards lurking everywhere in a home.
“Be careful on the inside if you have candles, fireplaces or portable heaters, even leaving food heating on the stove,” said Cabrera, noting unattended food is an all-too-frequent fire starter.
Cabrera said it’s also critical for homeowners to do fire prevention.
“It’s important for people to have fire breaks, clear any combustibles, like wood stacked close to their houses, from their yards,” she said. “If you’ve got a drier, make sure the lint traps are cleaned. Smoking and falling asleep, either in bed or in a chair, is really dangerous. Also, don’t forget to put candles out. Pets can knock them over.”
Asked if she’d recommend firefighting as a career, Cabrera didn’t hesitate to answer.
“It’s been very gratifying, fulfilling,” she said. “I’ve had the honor and pleasure of working with wonderful people. It’s been a challenge. You’re constantly being trained and tested.”
There is a down side.
“It takes a lot of time away from your family, and you have to work weekends, holidays and birthdays lots of times,” Cabrera said. “Many times, we’re up all day and night. It can be exhausting. You can be called away for 24 hours, sometimes even longer, up to 21 days, to fight fires far away from home.”
Nonetheless, it’s great to truly be in a position to be able to help people.
“You don’t want anyone to suffer or have anything bad happen to them, but if it’s going to happen … we’re the ones that are trained to be there,” Cabrera said. “We hope that you never need to call us. But if and when they do, we’re always here.”