— Last month, we examined a question: “What is it actually like to fight a major wildfire out West?” We got inside the heads of two Jefferson County natives who make a living working with the National Park Service (NPS)—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. This month, we peel back the layers as they head towards the flames. (Read Part One)
Cody Marsh is a Jefferson High School and Shepherd University graduate who now makes a living as a law enforcement park ranger with the National Park Service in Springfield, Illinois. Danny Carter lives in Shepherdstown and works as a biological science technician/preservation arborist with NPS. Both men recently returned from battling blazes in California and represent individual pieces to a massive puzzle designed to address one of the worst fire seasons in U.S. history—where 6,000 wildfires have burned over nine million acres and as many as 30,000 firefighters have had to unplug from their daily lives and head out to face an out-of-control blaze—some burning at speeds of 2,000 acres an hour.
Without some type of natural disruption (most Californians are hoping and praying that projections for an enormous El Niño this winter will bring huge swaths of rain to the West), guys like Marsh and Carter will likely find themselves getting “the call” early and often in 2016 and beyond. What they’ll have to face is anyone’s guess, but they both understand the risks and the routine pretty well at this point.
“Basically, if you get a call on a Thursday, you can expect to be traveling and working that Friday,” said Marsh. “The work-to-rest limit is strictly followed—16:8 work-to-rest hours, and 16:2 work-to-rest days. Twenty-one-day extensions are also granted.”
Fatigue is an issue that every firefighter must face, pretty much from the start, according to Marsh: “The first operational period, you’re typically jet-lagged and tired. The night before, you were scrambling to get all your gear together, finalizing travel arrangements, and communicating with your crew boss. I really try to get good sleep the night before because you can’t have quality situational awareness without it—even though sleep deprivation is inevitable after the first couple days. In some cases, you get to a fire after a long travel day and it’ll be eight o’clock, but you get assigned to night shift and have to work until seven the next morning. Ultimately, there is enough downtime to pretty much brush your teeth, sleep, and wake up and brush your teeth again.”
As Carter explained, finding rest can be a challenge, especially upon arriving at a fire camp: “Once we land at the destination, crews are either bussed in or will use local truck rentals to convoy to the fire camp. A fire camp is, essentially, the base camp where all fire-site-specific operations are organized. A camp may be as simple as an open field on the side of the road with no resources or accommodations to a more developed site that offers food catering, laundry services, and showers. Typically, Western fires last several weeks/months, and camps will eventually become more developed—often made up of over a thousand firefighters.”
Obviously, a camp of such scale and scope is an enormous logistical effort—to make sure that everyone is fed and kept in good health, and clear lines of communications are established from top to bottom. But once you arrive, you’re there for one reason.
Hard Work and Situational Awareness
“Depending on your qualifications, you can be called out to any number of positions,” said Marsh. “You can be swinging some sort of tool to dig fire lines, operating hose lays as part of a fire engine crew, or even working security. How up close and personal you get with the fire depends on whether your crew is tasked with direct or indirect attack.
“I’ve lit massive backfires with a drip torch [to fight fire with fire] as a firefighter and chased out illegal marijuana growers involved with cartels as a security specialist.”
Carter explained that “… each firefighter is issued their own firefighting personal protection equipment (PPE), consisting of a fire backpack, fire boots, fire shelter [for emergencies], full Nomax® clothing (fire-retardant), and the applicable tools, which consist of rakes, hoes, shovels, pick-axes, and fire axes. This is what we bring ‘on the line.’ Camp gear includes tents, pads, headlamps, personal hygiene supplies, etc., to last up to three weeks.”
And there’s food, of course—calorie intake is a massive issue for firefighters who work all day. “We start with a big breakfast early in the morning, and bagged lunches or MREs are provided daily, along with water and Gatorade, to stay hydrated throughout the day,” Carter added.
As a reader, you can imagine the little things like constant preparation each night and organizing of your gear and thoughts. Rest assured, this article could comprise 10 pages. But once Carter and Marsh are in action, they resort to what they’ve been trained to do—with a personal eye on the magnitude of what they’re a part of.
“Fighting fire is a combination of techniques and strategies,” Carter emphasized. “One of the most effective strategies is to reduce the fuels the fire is using—which is often done miles from where the fire currently burns. Establishing the ‘fire line’ is how we try and isolate the fire and stop its spread. But the bigger the fire, the bigger the process—tools, equipment, manpower, planning, etc.”
Working around hazardous trees is by far the most dangerous part of fighting fire, he stressed. “But other risks include: tripping hazards, dehydration, constant exposure to smoke, steep slopes, falling rocks, snake bites, scorpions, black widows, etc. The last camp I stayed in had a serious issue with black widows getting into tents.”
If you can avoid all of these additional dangers (and if you’re not part of a hot-shot crew literally attacking the fire head on), then most of your 16-hour day consists of good-old-fashioned hard work and situational awareness.
“While on assignment, you are always concerned about what the fire is doing, and what the weather is doing,” said Marsh. “Almost everyone is working hard on some task, but you’re also always looking out for a ‘widow maker’ tree ready to end your day or a change in the weather that might push the fire right at you—creating a ‘burn over’ entrapment situation.
“Seeing it on the news and being there are obviously very different things. You can’t even imagine what an entire forest of 100-foot flame lengths looks, feels, and sounds like. You have no idea how hot it is. Choking on smoke and then throwing up from coughing. The hair on your face and arms singed. And then surveying the damage. Homes destroyed. Animals and livestock gone. Or worse: people and firefighters lost.”
Arriving Back on Home Soil
And then, almost within the same blur that it began, it ends. Marsh and Carter find themselves back at home—back within a routine that seems familiar and foreign all at once.
“You have to go through a bunch of ‘demobilization’ procedures on your last operational period—usually day sixteen,” described Marsh. “Filling out the paperwork can take hours, but you’re eventually released—with your travel arrangements.”
Once he lands back on home soil, Marsh must then decompress in his own way—like so many thousands of others all across the country.
“There is a strange sense of quiet and stillness whenever you leave the incident and go back to normal life. You don’t smell any smoke, see any fire—the incessant noise of fire, fire engines, chainsaws, men yelling, scratchy radio traffic, generators and pumps, a crowed fire camp—it all vanishes. You get to sleep in, eat normal food, hug your loved ones, and watch the news.
“For me, I actually feel a little bit of depression set in for the first few days back. I have the overwhelming urge to be on these incidents and fight the good fight. When you leave it, you have this sense of deep accomplishment. When all that adrenaline and mission-oriented drive is gone, you feel a bit directionless. It’s a relief to be home and around my family, don’t get me wrong, but wildland firefighting is a special community of individuals who are bonded together by the yearly fight against the most unstoppable force in nature, and it gets in your bones.”
Carter can certainly relate. “There is definitely a bit of a culture shock when you get back. For me personally, it’s easy to camp out in a tent for three weeks, eat a meal already provided, hike ten to twenty miles, and work a sixteen-hour day—because I’m doing what needs done and following orders. When you come back and settle into home life, there’s a lot to figure out. A lot of things have stacked up in your absence. But my wife is my support system. She was involved with fire before I even got into it. I’d love to one day go out West on a fire with her.”By Mike Chalmers