In this two-part piece we ask the question: “What is it actually like to fight a major wildfire out West?” (Read Part Two)
— For Part One, we got inside the heads of two Jefferson County natives who make a living working with the National Park Service—but who also have to pick up and leave their lives as soon as they get the call to head out West and battle a monster fire.
Over nine million acres have burned this year from California to Alaska. For some perspective, the entire state of West Virginia comprises just over 15 million acres. Imagine waking up tomorrow, and well over half of our beautiful Mountain State was charred crispy black. Out West, thousands of homes, automobiles, buildings, playgrounds—and pretty much anything in the path of the infernos—have been turned to ash. Nearly a dozen lives have been lost—some of them firefighters.
The 2015 fire season is shaping up to be one of the worst, if not the worst, in U.S. history. More land has burned so far this year than in the same period in any year in the past decade (The Atlantic). Climate change, drought, even “over-fighting” fires that used to be allowed to burn out naturally, are mostly the culprits.
Without a doubt, the “tinderbox” climate we currently live within is getting worse. California, closing in on the fifth year of its historic drought, has seen at least 6,000 wildfires this year—about 1,500 more than usual. According to Rolling Stone, a recent Forest Service report found that climate change has stretched the fire season in the U.S. by 78 days since 1970. The Sierra Nevada snowpack is at a 500-year low—which equals much less spring runoff—leaving trees and vegetation, especially in the soggy Pacific Northwest, without the moisture they need—the perfect dry, crispy fuel for megafires.
But mostly out here on the East Coast, we just watch it on TV—along with any number of disasters that might pop up on the news between “reality” shows and football, football, FOOTBALL! We might gaze half intrigued, half distracted at our flat-screens and learn that as many as 30,000 firefighters (most of them men and women like you and me, with regular day jobs and lives) have been struggling to contain these blazes—some of them burning at speeds of 2,000 acres an hour. But again, we’re not there; it’s just another thing happening on the other side of the country (similar to the other side of the world—where all the other news seems to take place). And in modern society, it gets tossed into the minutia of what is more increasingly being labeled as collective “disaster fatigue.”
It’s a weird mental space to inhabit, especially if you’re guilty of nothing but living your life in a fairly disaster-free area. So it helps to hear about it from someone who’s been there, seen it, dealt with it—someone who’s had to clock out of their normal life, get their orders, leave their family and get on a plane, grab their gear, arrive onsite, and essentially, start battling a megablaze.
Cody Marsh (pictured above in title image) graduated from Jefferson High School and then Shepherd University. He then became a Law Enforcement Park Ranger with the National Park Service, but he also proudly maintains additional designations: Wildland Firefighter Type 2, Security Specialist Level 1. He currently works out of the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Illinois. And he just recently returned from fighting fires in California.
“The 2015 season was all hands on deck,” he confirmed. “There is definitely this feeling in the pit of your stomach like … I’m about to go into the belly of the beast. You think about all your standard wildland fire safety training—look up, look down, and look around—and LCES (lookouts, communication, escape routes, and safety zones). You know that firefighters die tragically every year and you don’t want to be another fatality.”
Marsh explained that the National Interagency Fire Center sets a national preparedness level (PL) for fire activity. The levels are 1–5, with 1 being low fire activity and low demand for resources, and 5 being high activity with a large demand. The PL number is a good indication for guys like Marsh as to whether they’ll be getting the call to ship out.
“In certain regions, such as Alaska this year in July, the PL was at a 5,” he noted. “Basically, at a PL5, they can’t get enough resources and you see international resources come in like you saw this summer.”
As you can imagine, there is a very organized and intricate national coordination of notifications and chain-of-command-type ordering systems involved in getting all the necessary equipment and manpower to a fire site.
Essentially, a national resource ordering and status system (ROSS)—managed by the National Wildland Coordinating Group (NWCG) generates a resource order (RO) that provides an interagency list of all available and qualified personnel and resources that can be ordered for an “incident.” A massive dispatch center then goes about the meticulous process of sending out “orders” to thousands of people like Marsh, as well as similar requests for the equipment that will be needed onsite.
“Dispatch calls the identified resource—a firefighter, dozer crew, etc.—with the RO and coordinates travel arrangements, equipment to bring, and where to report,” he said. “The RO is, more or less, your guiding document. Typically, between the initial call and RO to your time of arrival at the incident, it’s under twenty-four hours.
“There is definitely a state of preparedness during fire season; your red bag [fire bag] stays packed, boots are oiled and ready to go, and you know that when it’s PL4 or 5, there will most likely be an RO coming your way.”
The speed of organization makes sense. Fires, especially fires out West, tend not to wait on anyone or anything. And thus, the men and women trained to fight them must be equally swift in arriving to stop them. But that doesn’t make leaving your family any easier, said Marsh.
“It’s bittersweet. Some of us live for fire season; I grew up with it. My dad fought fires in the eighties and nineties. Now I fight fires—as a collateral duty—and my daughter and wife are going through me being gone for sixteen days on a fire. You want to help save lives, property, and pristine natural areas, but you also know it’s extremely dangerous. You work sixteen hours every day, with eight hours to eat and sleep. At the end of an incident, you’re tired to the bone, somewhat malnourished, and ready to go home.”
Shepherdstownian Danny Carter, a Biological Science Technician/Preservation Arborist with the National Park Service, also recently returned from battling blazes out West. Even with multiple fire seasons behind him, he’s still taken by the massive amount of coordination that goes into it.
“There’s so much about the process of fire, getting called out, routines while on a fire, protocol, etc., that are common no matter what agency you work for,” he said. “It’s very similar to military operations, no matter where the fire is being fought. There are so many roles people play; however, the combined efforts of a hand crew, a unit of nineteen to twenty-one firefighters made of up sawyers, swampers, type-two firefighters, squad bosses, and a crew boss are the bulk of the laboring workforce behind fighting fire on the ground.”
It should also be noted that the U.S. Forest Service (not the Park Service [NPS]) actually deals with the majority of fires nationally, with professional full-time hotshot crews and smokejumpers. The NPS endeavors more on the conservation/preservation side—but on large fires, both services work side by side when needed.
“For us East Coast firefighters, the PL for a fire typically has to reach a 4–5 level for us to be called upon,” Carter pointed out. “The national park Fire Managers at each park will then let trained personnel know that a crew may be formed over the next day or two to be sent out West.”
At each park, there are usually several employees that have taken the basic (Type 2) wildland fire training required (walking three miles with a 45-pound pack in under 45 minutes, and basic fire fighting training). Additionally, there are more advanced training certifications required on a fire (Type 1) that a resource order might call for (e.g., sawyer, squad boss, heli-tech, etc.). A RO will call for which type of firefighters it needs. In the case of a megafire, it might need everyone.
“Once a crew is formed, then a call is made to each firefighter from the park’s fire manager asking for all resources to report in the next several hours at a designated area,” said Carter. “Firefighters that are ‘available’ in the ROSS system should always have their fire gear, along with whatever gear is needed to camp for up to 21 days in any weather condition, packed and ready to go at all times.”
Carter explains that, often times, crews don’t know what fire they’re headed to until they’ve landed on the ground and received orders. At times, even flights will redirect to a different location while in the air if needed. Which makes gathering “intel” a pivotal piece to the puzzle, according to Marsh.
“There is some uncertainty innately involved with going somewhere you’ve never been before,” he admitted. “Luckily you can gather a lot of intelligence via your smartphone prior to going. You’ll also potentially be without phone service in these areas, so you’re in the black, besides your radio.”
The EICC (Emergency Information Command Center) rapidly arranges all travel for folks like Marsh and Carter once they receive their RO. The government pays for commercial flights usually right from the closest regional airport to a series of other airports, as typically these reservations are made hours before they depart. Upon arrival at the destination airport, they might get picked up in a crew van, get a rental vehicle, or take another ride on a small plane or helicopter, depending on where the fire is.
“You may go on the fire as a single resource, or as part of a crew, which is identified on your RO,” Marsh stated. “In some cases, you’re just thrown together with others to comprise a crew—and you’ve never worked with them before. In other cases, you’re on a regular roster, and that crew gets a RO—so you’re going out with the same team you’ve gone out with for the past couple seasons.”
And then, almost in an instant, they’re on the ground—either with a familiar crew, or learning to trust new names and faces. But the reality doesn’t change; in fact, it’s likely staring them right in the face.
“You will never be able to appreciate the true force of nature until you see the ramifications of one lightning strike absolutely torch over a hundred and fifty thousand acres,” emphasized Marsh. “Think about that; that’s a hundred and twenty square miles. Think about driving from Shepherdstown to D.C. and all you can see on either side is never-ending black. Black trees, black dirt, black telephone poles, black buildings, black vehicles, and in general, just a black abyss.”
Carter knows this type of landscape all too well, and though he’s looked into this back-lit blackness more times than most people would ever want to, he understands that in order to survive it, you’ve got to center yourself and concentrate on why you’re there.
“Once the RO goes out, you don’t have much time to organize your thoughts before you’re on the ground in front of it,” he observed. “Your gear is on your back; your training is crawling around through your mind in pieces; and you’re balancing a mix of nervousness, excitement, and curiosity. But you also can’t avoid the quiet distraction of a small, persistent, thought: ‘Stay sharp. Stay focused. Stay alive.’”
— Part Two of this piece follows Carter and Marsh into the fire and reveals the true magnitude of such an experience both physically and mentally.