While visiting his hometown of Manteca, California, on July 14, a Phoenix-based airman rushed into multiple burning buildings to awaken residents and usher them out of danger.
Tech Sgt. Michael Cleary, an aircraft structural maintainer at the 56th Equipment Maintenance Squadron at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, was home on leave when he smelled smoke and noticed ash drifting through the air. Shortly afterward, he saw flames coming over some houses, according to an Air Force press release.
The blaze was spreading through the entire neighborhood, engulfing trees and cars. Recognizing the danger to the residential area, he jumped from his vehicle and ran to the scene of the fire.
“My first thought was to see if anyone needed help, so I ran up to the first house. where the tenants were still inside sleeping, woke them up and helped them exit,” Cleary said in the release.
The fire was spreading rapidly, though, and Cleary saw two other homes nearby that were in immediate danger, so he ran to alert those residents as well.
Carin Rhodes, a tenant of one of the properties, heard Cleary shouting just outside, “Hey! Hey! There’s a fire in your backyard!”
“I rushed to a window where I could see that there were three Modesto ash trees on fire,” Rhodes said. “I could feel the searing heat through the window. As I ran to the front door, I could still hear the yelling man alerting my neighbors. I watched this man go from house to house alerting the neighborhood without hesitation. All the while, I was completely amazed at how quickly he reacted to everything and how fluid he was.”
After alerting the neighborhood, Cleary grabbed a water hose and began trying to prevent the spread of flames before the local fire department arrived.
The Air Force said he risked his physical safety and health by exposing himself to the flames and smoke.
“I had a cough for the next two days, but it was all worth it knowing that I played a small part in preventing three families from possibly losing their homes,” Cleary said.
With a half-hour, Cleary and the Manteca Fire Department had not only cleared the residents from the three burning homes but also extinguished the flames.
Cleary credited his Air Force training for helping him respond quickly.
As an aircraft maintenance professional, Cleary is routinely trained in fire safety, especially in fire prevention and how to slow or stop the spread of aircraft-related blazes when they occur.
“That training helped me remain calm throughout the situation,” Cleary said. “The whole process felt instinctual; [I needed] to prevent the spread of fire the best I could.”