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Joe Ortiz' fire trucks

Horse Country, as they often call Sun Valley, is about the only place in Los Angeles where Joe Ortiz could live and indulge his hobby.

Ortiz, a retired Los Angeles city fire paramedic, doesn't own horses, though. He owns fire engines. Lots of them.

"At last count, I think I own 38 fire engines, ambulances and emergency vehicles," says Ortiz, 65, whose collection of vehicles are jammed into his acre of land the way horse stalls sit in surrounding properties.

"It's my hobby."

Some, though, would argue that it's also been an obsession, which Ortiz half-jokingly admits has extracted a high cost.

"I went out to an auction once, and my wife said, 'If you come back with another fire truck, I'm gone,"' Ortiz recalls. "I didn't come back with one fire truck. I came back with three!"

Within a couple of years, Ortiz and his wife divorced.

"The fire trucks were just among the issues," leading to the break-up, Ortiz says.

But what may have cost Ortiz a marriage apparently kicked off a new career.

Ortiz has become a virtual Hollywood prop house for anything fire-related and by his count now supplies fire engines and equipment for movie and television productions that employ him up to 200 days a year.

Ortiz has provided fire trucks and equipment for such films and TV shows as "Ladder 49," "Lethal Weapon" "Eagle Eye," "Heroes" and "CSI New York."

"I even supply them with firefighters," says Ortiz, who provides retired and off-duty firemen to portray firefighters in productions. "New York City equipment. I can do that. Period movies. I can do that, too."

Long-time friend Kevin O'Connell of Whittier is among the former firefighters Ortiz has used in his production crews who says Ortiz is special among fire apparatus collectors.

"Joe is clearly the most well-known and the most endeared because he doesn't just show off what he owns, he also gives it back to the community," says O'Connell.

Ortiz, says O'Connell, does like to boast that possibly his most prized possession - a 1954 A.J. Miller Cadillac First Aider ambulance - is on permanent display at Los Angeles Fire Department Museum in Hollywood, of which Ortiz is a director.

"I don't like to toot my own horn," says Ortiz. "I find it more enjoyable talking about the good work other people do."

Near an empty swimming pool in his backyard, Ortiz displays fire trucks and ambulances that date back to the 1940s, as well as an REO Speedwagon that always gets a lot of attention.

"I don't have any favorites. Like children," says Ortiz, the father of an adult son and daughter. "They are all my favorites."

In addition to the fire and emergency vehicles, Ortiz owns almost 200 firefighting uniforms and hats, dozens of antique sirens, truckloads of unfilled oxygen tanks, and hundreds upon hundreds of yards of firefighting hose.

"This is all my love," he says.

It's all part of a fascination with fire trucks and firefighting equipment that dates back to seeing his first fire truck as a child growing up in Santa Monica.

"I was around four, and it was coming down the street with its siren blaring," he remembers. "I was hooked."

Ortiz recalled that in high school, he would often go around wearing T-shirts with fire department logos and carry a miniature firefighter figure in a back pocket.

"When I was 16, I lied about my age and got a job driving an ambulance for a private ambulance company," he says.

"This is the only thing I ever wanted to do."

Eventually Ortiz went to work for the Los Angeles Fire Department. He retired 15 years ago, the bulk of his collection already in hand.

Some of the equipment Ortiz obtained for next to nothing, but a few pieces cost him tens of thousands of dollars.

"It all began for a parade many years ago," he says. "Us paramedics wanted to be in the parade, and they told us we couldn't because we didn't have our own truck. So I went out and found one.

"We fixed it up, painted it, and next time there was a parade, we rode in it."

Today, Ortiz often lends out his equipment for parades or appears at festivals where he mans booths promoting fire safety.

But on Tuesday, wearing a fire department T-shirt and cap, Ortiz was sprucing up several of his fire trucks for a "Heroes" TV series shoot near downtown Los Angeles Thursday and an episode of "Dexter" on Monday. 

"Everything is almost ready to go," he says. "They're hiring fire trucks and firemen for a film, and they're getting the best Hollywood can get.

"No prop department can provide what we provide."