• Fire captain’s protective clothing was critical to limiting his injuries.
• But the burn injuries are life-threatening due to risk of infection, doctors say.
• Pete Dern being cared for in burn unit that owes its existence in large part to fundraising by Fresno firefighters.
Fresno firefighter Pete Dern remains in serious condition and faces skin grafts and weeks of other intensive treatment for burns he suffered Sunday when a roof collapsed at a garage fire and he fell into an inferno, the medical director of the Leon S. Peters Burn Center said Monday afternoon.
“He remains stable but in very serious condition,” said Dr. William Dominic. “This is a very serious, certainly life-threatening burn.”
Dern, 49, had inhalation injuries as well as second- and third-degree burns to about 65% of his body, Dominic said. Dern was rushed Sunday afternoon to the burn center, which firefighters helped build in the 1970s.
Dern is on a ventilator to help him breathe. He has had one surgery and is looking at many more, with an operation scheduled for Wednesday to remove dead tissue and do temporary skin grafts. “This could be a very prolonged situation,” Dominic said.
Dern was leading several firefighters across the roof to provide ventilation for the safety of attack crews when the roof collapsed, the fire department said. A video posted on Facebook that captures Dern’s fall into the flames has received national attention.
After falling through the garage roof, Dern was rescued by fellow firefighters within minutes. That was critical to his survival, Dominic said. “No. 1 was getting him out ... as quickly as possible,” Dominic said. And the protective firefighting clothing Dern was wearing reduced burning, he said. Without the protective gear: “It’s highly unlikely he would have been alive long enough for someone to help him out.”
Dern’s clothing and gear have been saved, Fresno Fire Chief Kerri Donis said. Members of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration are in Fresno to investigate the work injury, she said. But she also is bringing in an outside team of independent investigators, she said.
A firefighter first and foremost
Dern is a 25-year veteran of the department and has been a captain for 17 years. On Monday, dozens of fellow firefighters gathered at Community Regional Medical Center in support of their colleague. All of them described Dern as a leader.
Capt. Bob Van Tassel, who began his firefighting career with Dern, was chosen to speak for the captain’s family members. They want to thank the community for its support and hospital staff for its care, but they’re “sort of overwhelmed,” he said. “We’re hoping to get them some rest.”
Van Tassel said Dern “is a husband, a father, a firefighter and he’s our friend.” Dern has one daughter “that he’s very proud of,” he said. A firefighting family drove her to the hospital from the college she’s attending, he said.
He’s known Dern for years, and Van Tassel describes his friend as someone good at assessing situations, possibly a trait from his time as an Army Cobra helicopter pilot. But he also has an aesthetic eye. Dern built a house in Shaver, which he sold. He also took an old oak branch on the property and fashioned a mantel for a fireplace, Van Tassel said.
But foremost, Dern is a dedicated firefighter. He’s worked at the busiest fire department truck company for the last five years, Van Tassel said. He could have moved to a less “brutal location,” but chose to stay. Dern stepped out and put himself at risk hundreds of times, Van Tassel said.
A speech at a 1998 Exchange Club luncheon honoring Dern as the city’s firefighter of the year epitomized him: “Pete Dern is the kind of employee who sees a job that needs to be done and does it,” said Capt. Michael S. Gill. “He never complains, and never boasts about his deeds or accomplishments.”
On Monday, Donis said the captain is “a leader among leaders in this department. He’s probably trained every single one of us who have come through the ranks at some point.”
She also praised Dern’s team. The firefighters did everything right in a worst-case scenario, she said.
Donis said the fire likely started in the garage, but the cause is still under investigation. “We haven’t ruled out anything yet,” she said. “There are some avenues we’re pursuing.”
Van Tassel said the team broke the garage door down to get Dern out, got his clothes off, called for an ambulance and continued to fight the fire. “I’m very proud of them,” he said. “They all knew what had happened was very bad, and they feared he wouldn’t make it out alive.”
Firefighters have connection to burn unit
Donis said Dern was fortunate that the Leon S. Peters Burn Center is located at Community Regional Medical Center in downtown Fresno. “He needed immediate burn attention from the experts,” she said.
Fresno firefighters and the burn center have a long connection going back four decades.
“The center started in 1974 as a result of a Fresno firefighter who was injured,” said Sandra Yovino, the center’s clinical director. The firefighter had to be rushed to San Jose, the nearest burn center at that time, she said.
In the 1970s, burn centers were a new idea, Yovino said. There were only a few nationwide. But Fresno firefighters raised initial funds to help open one, she said. The 10-bed center now admits more than 200 burn patients a year and treats another 500 yearly as outpatients.
For years, the Fresno Firefighters Association has held “Fill the Boot” fundraisers for the center.
The burn center’s hyperbaric oxygen chambers to treat smoke inhalation and hard-to-heal wounds are thanks in large part to fund-raising efforts by Fresno firefighters, Yovino said. “One reason we maintain our hyberbaric department is for our firefighters,” she said.
In the past three years, the burn center has treated nine firefighters, Yovino said. Dern is the first Fresno firefighter among them, she said.
It’s a surprisingly low number of firefighters Dominic says he’s treated for burn injuries in 23 years at the center. “They do a very good job of working safely.”