Firefighter Details Front Lines of San Diego Blaze As fires continue to ravage Southern California, few are more destructive than the San Diego County Harris fire. Capt. Martin Johnson, a California Fire spokesman fighting the Harris fire, talks with Michele Norris about what life is like for a firefighter on the front lines.
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Firefighter Details Front Lines of San Diego Blaze

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Firefighter Details Front Lines of San Diego Blaze

Firefighter Details Front Lines of San Diego Blaze

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

Of the many fires still raging across Southern California, the Harris fire is one of the largest and most dangerous. It's scorched more than 70,000 acres so far, destroyed more than 200 homes, injured two dozen civilians and killed at least one. While thousands of residents have been evacuated from the area, firefighters are racing into harm's way to protect homes and try to contain the blaze. It's grueling work, with fighters often working round the clock.

Among them is Captain Martin Johnson of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. He spent the last three days and nights working on the frontlines of the Harris fire. And he joins us now by phone.

Captain Johnson, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.


NORRIS: What's happening now on day three of these fires? Are you any closer to bringing those flames under control?

JOHNSON: Yeah. I think the weather is starting to turn a little bit better for us. It's been a really, really tough few days, very little sleep, just getting catnaps where and when we can. Fire conditions have really been extreme, the wind being the primary factor. But it seems like all the stars just kind of aligned on this one where you had, you know, drought conditions and high winds, low humidity really beat us up hard over the last few days.

NORRIS: There are, I imagine, cases where you're actually out there trying to protect a row of homes, perhaps an individual home and you have to make a difficult decision. Do you stay or, with the fire closing in, do you go? How difficult must that be?

JOHNSON: Well, it is very difficult. And it's made on a case-by-case basis. But if you - you know, we had a lot of areas evacuated and some people chose not to leave. And they, in fact, became rescue problems for us later. If you really think about it as a tidal wave, the last place you want to be is in front of that thing. We do the best we can to try to do flanking action along the fire lines. You really have to get out of its way, let it run its course, but continue your efforts taking advantage of opportunities through terrain or roads or other firebreak opportunities. And, you know - it just beat us up.

NORRIS: There were a few firefighters that found themselves trapped by the flames. They couldn't escape, so they had to stay and cover themselves with these so-called fire shelters. What is that and how do you use them?

JOHNSON: Well, they're basically little, imagine, envision a little pup tent that looks like it has tinfoil on the outside. And you deploy those in a clear area where there isn't any brush. And it allows the fire - the heat from the fire to be deflected off those tents and hopefully provide you enough survivability to survive the fire front moving through. It really is kind of our last-stitch effort when we get trapped.

NORRIS: You know, most of us by now have seen incredible pictures of these blazes. And maybe because I work in radio, I wonder what those flames sound like?

JOHNSON: That's an interesting question. I - you know, last night, I was off of Highway 79 by the high school, one of our evacuation centers. And the fire was backing down towards that center. And we chose to put our equipment in place and shelter those people in place. It was a modern school made out of brick and cement.

But as that fire moved down that hill towards that evacuation center, to see the looks on the faces of the people looking up at the fire - I was actively engaged in trying to hold the fire to the road, and the sounds associated with it, the crackling, the popping, the burning, the things falling over in the night, really, I was just taken aback by the strange beauty of it. It was really quite an extraordinary moment. And that - it's interesting you asked that question.

NORRIS: Well, all the best to you when it's your time to get out there again. Please be safe.

JOHNSON: Well, thank you very much.

NORRIS: Martin Johnson is a spokesman for CAL FIRE. He's fighting the Harris fire. He's with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. Thanks so much for talking to us.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

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