Face-to-Face With the Fires

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

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US Forest Service firefighters from the Angeles National Forest north of Los Angeles, California. David McNew/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption David McNew/Getty Images

At this point, tens of thousands of acres have burned in California, and more than 19,000 people are fighting the flames. Yesterday, the town of Big Sur was given a mandatory evacuation order, as one of the many wildfires moved closer to the city. While most news reports focus on acres burned, homes and buildings lost, and people uprooted, today we'll get the other side of story. We'll talk with firefighters who battle forest fires, from the ground and the air, and find out what it's like to battle the flames face-to-face. If you're a firefighter, what's your experience?

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A lot of the services on the firelines are contracted, from hand crews, water tenders, transportation to portable showers and contract caterers. I used to be involved in this business, but found the Emergency Equipment Rental Agreement system to be highly political.

Sent by Dave | 2:20 PM | 7-3-2008

I am listenning to you from my fire tower in central nh. I have been burned out of my tower by arson forest fires twice in my wildland ff career.

Sent by Ed Maheux | 2:27 PM | 7-3-2008

I was a fire lookout for four summers, starting in 1947, on Beaver Hill tower in Coos County, Oregon. I acted as a relay station between a big fire in my area to HQ in Coos Bay -- big stuff then, considering our primitive equipment. My grand salary of $150/month paid my way through college.

And more recently, I've lived in Palo Colorado canyon in the Big Sur (which is not really a town, is it?)

Now I live in Sonoma County, still watching fires. On TV.

Sent by Sarah Cornelius | 2:31 PM | 7-3-2008

In the period of mid 1950's and before logging and lumber co. crews were conscripted from nearby operations and provided the hand crews under supervision of Forest Services personnel. We slept on the ground with isued blankets in the clothes we wore. A water tank truck provided cold water to wash in. Often worked with prisoner crews. Food was great.

Sent by Jim Zeek, Camin CA | 2:33 PM | 7-3-2008

Early in the show Neal asked if there were "professional" or "volunteer" firefighters working the California fires.

All the firefighters, just as in all emergency services, are professionals -- by the true definition of the word. They may, however, be "paid" professionals or "unpaid" (volunteer) "professionals.

Remember the criteria of a "profession:"
1. Requires specialized or advance education, usually, although not always, at the college level;
2. Is based upon a developed body of knowledge that is continually researched;
3. Government requires a license or certification to grant permission to practice

In wildland fiefighting, all personell
met the same stringent standards, whether they receive a paycheck, or just a "thank you."

Sent by Howard M. Paul | 2:45 PM | 7-3-2008

Wildland fire is a lot different than structure fire, and as was mentioned by the guests on the show, different agencies are in charge of fires in different parts of a single state.

It is wonderful that no lives have been lost in these fires this season, and I wish all of the firefighters out there the best and hope they all get to return safely home, pockets full of cash.
I worked for the Oregon Department of Forestry primarily as an engine operator for initial attack for six summers. About 80% of the time, firefighters are far from the flames, instead conducting "mop up" activities after a fire is contained. Once a fire is mopped up (no hot spots, embers, or flame within a certain distance from the fire line) it is considered "controlled." Containment just means that there's a fire line around the fire, but there can be flames up to the edge of that line.

My dad was a Smokejumper for the US Forest Service out of Redmond, OR in the early 1970s and then again in 1982. He encouraged me to do firefighting during my summers between college, and it helped pay my way through school. Firefighters can earn quite a bit -- often the days are 14 hours long, so plenty of overtime, especially when you work 14-days straight.

It was a great experience, and ever time these fires break out I really want to run away from my desk job and back to the fire lines (just for a few weeks).

I'll never forget the black snot or the deeply imbedded soot/ash in my pores. Firefighters often spend those 14 days in two pairs of pants and a couple of t-shirts. Socks are the most important -- but I often reused mine at least twice before sending my clothing into the laundry service at fire camp.

Fire camps themselves are incredible feats, and the administrative and operations staff on the USFS and BLM and state fire teams are experienced and professional in setting up small cities where they can (parks, fields, etc.).

I also had a lot of experience working with the Convict crews, and I have to say that I thought they did a better job than the largely inexperienced and out-of-shape National Guard crews. The National Guard crews were best at preparing food!

Sent by Leah | 2:47 PM | 7-3-2008

I was with the U.S. Forest Service on the Tahoe National Forest out of Truckee, CA. It was 1979. My very first fire was a very steep fast one heading up the mountain toward lots of Tahoe Donner homes. (cause of fire: a cigarette thrown from a car on Interstate 80.) After 16 straight hours of cutting a 4 foot wide fire line down to mineral soil, and running on pure adrenalin, our 10 man crew (and me, the one woman) dragged our exhausted, filthy, smoky, HUNGRY selves into Truckee's very busy Wagon Wheel Cafe. After a couple of seconds of wide-eyed silent staring, all the customers in the coffee shop stood up and gave us a standing ovation full of clapping and hoops and hollers and thank yous! And they all pitched in to buy us anything on the menu! It was one of the nicest moments (and most delicious meals) of my life! And it felt great that all the guys on my crew were impressed with my strength and endurance.

Thirty years later, I still have my "Shake and Bake", which is the little flame-resistant tent a firefighter crawls into as a last resort if he can't escape flames. Fortunately, I never had to use it.
Thanks for a great show that brought back many great firefighting memories. Now I am a graphic designer at an ad agency!

By the way, we saved all those homes!

Julie Larkin
Chicago IL

Sent by Julie Larkin | 2:57 PM | 7-3-2008

The impromptu village that is fire camp sprang up about my. Huddled at my work station on the back of the state, I over look the high school cafeteria there the team scurries about like ants on their various missions. the logistics folks are getting food up to the spike camps and making sure that we have paper and ink in the plotter. Not to mention setting up radio repeaters and bringing a cellphone cow in. The computer folks quietly going around pausing at the various work stations to ensure that they are working properly and securing the stations of those who have long since gone to bed. Operations is sequestered in their room planning the day ahead, where the line wil go and how many bulldozers they will need. Air ops is making sure that the pilots are fresh and the bucket is working properly. The Gis folks take in the information and make it into graphical display so that the folks on the ground can see where they have been and where they are headed. The liaison officer is working to map out all of the structures so that we don't loose more of them (have lost 4 so far on this complex)--side note this fire is in California--land of technology, yet there is not a digitial record of where the structures are in the woods--they have the roads mapped but nothing in the way of how many hosues are along it. In the far corner the information officers are putting together their plan for the morning. the big weekend means that visiters from the Bay Area will be coming up to recreate on the lake and drive though the fire area as that is the access route. Maps of various sizes hang about the room data displayed and data gathered...marker lines showing progress and battles lost. By morning there will be new clean maps hanging waiting for the updates. Outside in the grove of walnuts the tents sit, rustling in the wind each the home of one of us for the duration. I found a storage closet in the winds and have claimed it. At bed time the security guard askes how Harry Potter is and chats for awhile. All of us come from other areas, security guy is from Fish and Wildlife Service, others are from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the State of Montana, Rural Fire Districts in montana. The team was brought in from there and teh gaps in the orginization structure filled with locals and pick ups from across the nation. The HR person joined us from Atlanta Georgia and one of the crew boss trainees came in from Luisianna (sp?). There is a Park Service person minding the helicopters from South Florida. That we can all come together and function as a team in such a short time frame is a marvel to observe. As we leave it will be a similiar crumpling of structure, equipment and people moving back to there they came from until the only sign that we were here is the foot trails worn into the grass between the various outposts and the crushed grass in the grove marking the rest that has passed. The plotter hims the print head changing pitch when it is retracting vs when it is printing. (on the last fire there was a guy next to me in the sleeping area who snored in teh timbre of the plotter.) Ours are small fires, yet there are still 2000 hectares that are blackened. Most of the big trees will survive the small ones who are crowding in like children around the icecram trick will be thinned, allowing those who remain to grow stronger. The first days of the fires there was a grey fog of smoke filling the central valley from Redding Ca down to south of Fresno. The sun rose red, fought to burn through rarely making it. The wildlife came down off of the mountain and stayed up into the day long past their bed time. The grass is already cured out on the hills. The farmers have only gotten one cut of hay this year. The wildlife is in for a rough season. The firefighters too. Once the fire is contained I will go home change my hat and return as a Burned Area Emergengy Response team member assessing the burned area and determining if anything needs to be done to protect the denuded hill sides. Then I'll change my hat again and implement the prescribed actions. Some where in there I need to get my usual field work done too. It's been promising to be a long summer since April and it has only just begun.

Sent by Robin Mowery | 1:08 AM | 7-4-2008

I was a member of a "hotshot" crew in the southwestern US with the Forest Service for a number of years until I returned to school in August 2005 to acquire a professional degree. Hotshot crews are widely recognized as some of the most experienced and versatile crews that suppress wildfire in our Nation. These crews are composed of twenty individuals, and each member is usually equipped with one of two implements: a digging ("hand") tool, or a chainsaw. Those carrying chainsaws ("saywers") work ahead of the digging members on the fireline to cut rough paths and create spacing between the tops of trees by knocking them over, and are accompanied by another member who acts as a spotter and helps clear the sawyer's workspace. The digging members then follow the saw teams by reducing the remaining vegetatation to mineral soil.

Of course, if the fire is sufficiently intense, hotshot crews prefer to use other techniques to accomplish their suppression goals. That includes teaming with bulldozer operators, helicopters with water-dropping capability, fixed-wing aircraft for reconnaissance and water/retardant capability.

But what is overlooked the most often by those unfamiliar with wildfire is that the hotshot crews are trained to fight fire WITHOUT WATER. In fact, hotshot crews love it. It's what sets them apart from other types of resources, but it can be an aggressive strategy, and carries with it certain safety concerns of which hotshot crews must be hyper-aware. It means fighting fire with fire, usually by taking advantage of natural or artificial terrain features (e.g., ridgetops, rockslides, highways and rights-of-way) that serve as an "anchor" point. The area between the anchor and the active fire is then burned with any number of techniques, including spouted cans with wicks containing a diesel-gas mixture, pistols that propel flare-like devices into hard-to-reach places and down or up slopes, and coordinating with helicopters equipped with similar fire-starting capabilities.

I remember the overwhelming sadness that I felt when I parted with my crew for the last time on a fire in Eastern Oregon. It was the most rewarding experience of my life, and I had the pleasure of working with some of the finest individuals that I have ever met. God bless all the firefighters during this active season.

Sent by Greg Gambill | 10:46 AM | 7-4-2008