In Lull, 'Hot Shot' Crews Target Smaller Fires

Mac Sparks, of the Fulton Hot Shots from Glennville, Calif., uses a chain saw to separate wood. i i

Mac Sparks, of the Fulton Hot Shots from Glennville, Calif., uses a chain saw to separate burning wood so the rest of the tree won't catch fire. Jeff Brady, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Brady, NPR
Mac Sparks, of the Fulton Hot Shots from Glennville, Calif., uses a chain saw to separate wood.

Mac Sparks, of the Fulton Hot Shots from Glennville, Calif., uses a chain saw to separate burning wood so the rest of the tree won't catch fire.

Jeff Brady, NPR

Calmer winds have given firefighters in California a chance to contain wildfires that have burned 700 square miles of land and destroyed about 1,500 houses. North of Los Angeles, crews have contained the largest fires, but there are still spot fires generated by the Ranch Fire to put out.

The skies around Santa Clarita, Calif., were mostly clear Wednesday afternoon. For the first time since the fires grew out of control Sunday, only one column of off-white smoke could be seen.

For crews on the ground, there are many more small fires still simmering.

Firefighter Damon Carson-Hull works with an elite crew called the Stanislaus Hot Shots. They're part of the army of nearly 3,000 firefighters who descended on the Los Angeles area this week.

Wednesday, the group gathered at a remote cabin after sending a scout ahead to check out an island of unburned land.

"Basically, it looks like a light bulb on a black mat, that's pretty much the shape of it," Carson-Hull said. "At the bottom of the light bulb is where the structure is at."

Just above that, at the base of the bulb, the crew will scrape a clean line in the ground. Then, if a second fire moves through the top of the bulb, it'll run out of fuel and stop before reaching the cabin.

"Around here, there's a lot of steep slopes," Carson-Hull said, "so we're gonna put a big trench in so anything that might be on fire that would roll down would be caught in the trench."

Nearby, Mac Sparks led another crew of about five people, part of the Fulton Hot Shots, as they looked for isolated, half-burned trees that were still smoldering.

"Basically, I run the chain saw on the crew," Sparks said, "put out in front of the rest of the boys to make a way for the guys with the hand tools, so they can get in there and make the trenches."

The Hot Shots know they're benefiting from a change in the weather. The Santa Ana winds that had gusted above 50 mph were all but gone in the area Wednesday. Still, there is plenty of smoldering wood that could flare up and cause another fire.

As the saw powers through tree limbs, others in the crew isolate the burned areas, creating what looks like a group of campfires.

Rick Newton, with the U.S. Forest Service, says the crews are sorting the wood to keep the flames from finding new fuel.

"If it's hot material, burnt material, they'll put it in the black," Newton said, "and if it's clean material that's not on fire, they'll put it in an unburned pocket."

It takes the crews about five minutes to finish each burning tree. But if a steady wind returns, it could turn any of the thousands of similar trees in the area into another raging wild fire.

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