Wildfires Rekindle Memories for Leber

Vikings linebacker Ben Leber knows exactly what residents of Southern California are going through. He lived it back in 2003 as a member of the San Diego Chargers.

Even while Vikings linebacker Ben Leber and wife Abby were visiting patients at the University of Minnesota Children's hospital, there was concern for their own friends and relatives back in California.

The Southern California wildfires have already killed at least one person, injured dozens of others and caused the evacuations of approximately a million people in the area, and the whole ordeal hits home with the Lebers, who now reside in Minnesota after Ben spent four years with the San Diego Chargers.

"I was really involved with the firefighters in San Diego, so it's kind of tough," Ben said. "Even within the last 24 hours I saw two of the guys that I really know giving interviews on the ‘Today Show' and ‘Good Morning America.'"

"It just brings it all back, because it's scary," said Abby.

The Chargers have moved their practices this week to Tempe, Ariz., and their game may be moved as well. The Chargers were scheduled to host the Houston Texans at Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday, but the stadium is being used as a temporary home for about 10,000 evacuees.

Four years ago, when Ben was playing for the Chargers, he went through a nearly identical situation. Back then, the Chargers were preparing to play a Monday night game in San Diego, which was moved to Arizona because of the wildfires of 2003. As Ben remembers it, he didn't know until a few days before where the game would be played.

Much worse, Ben and Abby nearly evacuated their home back in 2003.

"The neighborhood just east of us was evacuated. Basically, we were on the line. We had probably half of the neighbors pack up and leave," Ben said.

The Lebers had their cars packed up and were ready to leave with whatever they could grab within 1 ½ hours. They went through their house and videotaped everything for insurance purposes.

"It was a crazy, crazy experience to wake up in the morning and smell smoke, realize it's not in your house and see a wall of flames that is a mile away but seems like it was in your back yard because it was so tall," Ben said. "Then you turn on the TV and people were saying, ‘Everybody needs to get out. This is what you need to do and here is where the fires are.' What do you do? How do you prioritize what's important in your life in an hour and a half?"

As fate would have it, Ben had a friend that worked for the city who made him aware of an underfunded project that the linebacker worked to rectify. The fire and rescue operations had only one helicopter for its efforts and Ben said they needed at least two.

"I was shocked to find out the city underfunds that part of the protection. In Southern California, you worry about fires and earthquakes, and the fact that you're not ready for fires is kind of unbelievable," he said. "… They need at least two, so what they had to do was do all of their private fundraising."

He believes those helicopters need about $4 million in maintenance.

"Those things are so rugged and they go through so much. (About) every 10 hours it's going through more maintenance, so it's a lot of man hours to keep those things going," he said.

During that time of fundraising, Abby got to go for a ride hanging from the helicopter. But Ben gained a lot of respect for the rescue crews – as the professional football player who hits people for a living called men from another walk of life tough.

"Those guys are rugged, rugged dudes. The one guy that would hang off the winch (of the helicopter), I think he had broken his neck three times, but they love it. That's what they do," Leber said. "To hang off this helicopter and rescue people from floods and fire, it's a huge adrenaline rush."

Meanwhile, about 2,000 miles away, Leber is now hoping that the fundraising efforts he helped with are now put into use to help others, including those close to his heart and his former home.


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