Student Journal: summer dispatches from the field Wildland firefighter: A young writer at the front

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The Dispatches

1- Training to fight the hellfires of summer

2- A draining hike and a hard-core introduction

3- Establishing a "wetline," encountering a cactus, and going nose to nose with the nozzleman



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Training to fight the hellfires of summer, running for your life, practicing your very last resort

SAN DIEGO COUNTY — "I don't know if anyone has told you," Captain Alvarez warned, "but more firefighters have died here in San Diego County than in any other county in California."

We all pause for a second. I look around at the other firefighters. They're nervous. I catch my breath. Wearing all our fire gear — long-sleeve, fire-resistant shirts, helmets, gloves and two pairs of pants — the hike to the top of the hill is hot and fatiguing. This is a training hike. We are preparing to haul fire hose up and down the fire line. A hose lay can take hours to complete. On the hill, the packs are heavy, the ground is steep, and the work is hard. We need the training.

Today, they gave us 20 pounds of hose. When our training is over, we will be carrying twice that much.

Pretty soon, the training battalion chief joins the group. He asks us a few questions and lectures more about safety. Many of us are surprised that the chief is hiking with us. I am suspicious — something is up.

A little over a year ago, on July 6, 2001, four firefighters died on a fire in eastern Washington. It was called the Thirty-Mile Fire. The firefighters who died were all young and eager, like many of the people in our group. One person had just graduated from high school. She was 18.

The real tragedy of the Thirty-Mile Fire was that the deaths could have been prevented. The fatalities were the product of poor management and confusion among fire line staff. No single person was in charge.

And four kids died.

It is day four of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) Fire Academy. The academy will teach us to fight all sorts of fires in the next week — wildfires, car fires, even structure fires.

I am surprised to learn that they will send us into burning buildings. Things are not what I expected — CDF runs things differently than the Forest Service, for whom I worked last summer when I fought fires in Montana. Burning brush, I am ready for. Burning houses ... not so sure. You don't run into burning buildings, I am told; rather, you crawl. The super-heated smoke that fills the rooms and walkways of a house will kill you. Stay low, hug the ground, and know how to swing an axe.

We are the largest class that the CDF Academy has ever trained. We started the beginning of the week with 54 people. Now we are 52. The influx of personnel is the product of a bill signed by Gov. Gray Davis. The Southern California CDF Ranger Units will soon have four people on each fire engine. The current standard is three. The measure is a response to extreme drought conditions in the region. Fires are moving too fast for this time of year. The worst is yet to come.

The training cadre marches us back down the hill. We line up at the base of a steep slope and our instructors address us again. Captain Shoemaker's voice is stern,

My apprehension grows. I suspect we are going to run somewhere, and I loosen the straps on my pack.

"You must be ready to escape a fire at all times," Shoemaker shouted. "That readiness requires a high level of physical fitness. If you think you cannot achieve this readiness, then perhaps you should consider returning to CDF when you are ready. This job can kill you."

Mesmerized by the vehemence of his lecture, I stare up at the captain.

"The instructors are the fire. Don't let them overrun you," he screamed. "Run!"

I drop my pack immediately. As I step forward, people yell behind me. I reach for my fire shelter and grab the pull tab.

The fire shelter is our last resort. If we are about to be overrun by fire, to survive we must unfold and then crawl inside this foil and fiberglass tent. It can deflect large amounts of radiated heat, the kind you feel when standing next to a campfire. Unfortunately, the shelter will fail if it comes in contact with actual flames.

The packaged shelter shoots out of my hands. I dive to grab it. Two firefighters trip and pile on top of me. Dirt goes up my nostrils.

The instructors were on us. "You're dead! You're dead," they repeated to each person as they overran them. Each victim was forced to the ground with a push. "You're dead!"

I continue to run. No one has laid a hand on me yet, I will make it to the top. Some people have not dropped their packs. I can beat them, I think to myself. Then I realize that all the instructors and the shouting are in front of me. Shove or no shove, I too am dead.

Of the 52 firefighters that lined up at the base of the hill, only six make it to the top.

"There are an awful lot of white crosses on this hill," Captain Shoemaker's voice boomed. "That's more paperwork than I would ever want to fill out. All of you standing on this hillside are dead."

A tremor passes through all the would-be white crosses. I am among them.

I think to myself: "More fatalities than any other county in the state."

"Now get your packs and get out of here," Captain Shoemaker says. The chief is atop the hill, looking down at us. I believe he is pleased — point made.

We gather our gear and march out.

—Matt Mireles

Editor's note: Thanks to the USFS Arroyo Grande Flight Crew and for the firefighter photo on the Berkeley home page


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