Sunday, September 21, 2014
The girls and I are tracking another fire. My Firefighter was mobilized today to a huge fire burning between Lake Tahoe and Sacramento, called the King Fire. It was started by an arsonist, who is now in jail. When we were at Shriner's Hospital Northern California last Wednesday, we saw the pyrocumulus cloud from the fire as it went insane and nearly tripled in 12 hours, to over 17,000 acres. These aren't called forest fires in fire terms, that's for us lay people. These are called wildland fires.
He's part of a 4 man crew on a brush rig, part of a strike team, meaning he's "playing chicken with the fire." Until I met him, I never realized what these firefighters go through on wilderness fires. First off, they are called for up to two weeks straight. They could be on 12 or 24 hour shifts. They often sleep under the stars in sleeping bags, sometimes on cots, in super smoky air with mosquitos biting them, and, in the mountains, even in summer, it can be quite cold at night - or too hot. If they are lucky, there are sleeper trucks; large semi trailers with 50 bunks stacked three high. They use their sleeping bag and their own pillow, if they remembered to bring one, on the beds.
However, one must be in from duty early to get one of these, or it's out under the stars. Last time, too many trailers left before hundreds of men were demobilized and the men had to camp out in a school yard.
Showers are few and far between. Again, a semi trailer full of shower stalls is brought in to base camp and the lines are long. At the front of the line, the men are handed a large towel, that's paper, to dry off with. Believe me, they are grateful to finally get that shower. Sometimes, they are put up in camping cabins or even hotels or motels, but usually the cheapest ones with pretty bad accommodations.
Food comes out of a truck, too. It's plentiful, but not the most healthy, mostly carbohydrates. It can be anything from "industrial" hotdogs, a soggy hotdog pre-wrapped and served by the hundreds, to steak and fried shrimp, to canned beans and rice. Lunch is a sack lunch, and believe it or not, often contains those disgusting Uncrustables. Hot breakfast, usually meat like bacon, and eggs. Men can gain weight on these jobs from all the carbs, but they don't go hungry.
Of course, there aren't bathrooms out in the forest, so it's a shovel and hole for the big stuff and behind a bush for the small stuff.
On the last fire, My Firefighter took up a water tender, a relatively safe job because they are situated at the fringes of the fire where engines come to refill their tanks. The tender could be parked near a water source, like a creek or stream, even a tiny one, where they temporarily dam up the water to make a pool deep enough to get their pump in, or they empty into the engine tanks, then leave and drive to their water source, refill, then come back to their designated station. Below, the water tender is dumping into their portable tank and a rig is drafting into their own tank. It was the night shift and quite busy since, with the drop in temperature and increased humidity of night, a fire may "lay down" and a lot of fire suppression progress can be made.
It's amazing what these people do and we don't even know it. For example, a tree trunk may burn through at the bottom of the trunk, and tree will fall down. It's called a snag. If the fallen part burns, there might not be a trace left. If the stump burns, it can burn down into the ground all the way to the roots, but the ground won't show this, and still be burning, so the firefighters walk with stick like a blind person's cane, testing the ground before each step, because someone can fall right into one of these holes, it's like falling into a super heated oven and no one will survive. There was one at a recent fire that was 15 feet deep!