to fight the hellfires of summer, running for your life,
practicing your very last resort
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
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.
they gave us 20 pounds of hose. When our training is over,
we will be carrying twice that much.
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.
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.
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.
four kids died.
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.
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.
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.
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,
apprehension grows. I suspect we are going to run somewhere,
and I loosen the straps on my pack.
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."
by the vehemence of his lecture, I stare up at the captain.
instructors are the fire. Don't let them overrun you,"
he screamed. "Run!"
drop my pack immediately. As I step forward, people yell
behind me. I reach for my fire shelter and grab the pull
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.
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.
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
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.
the 52 firefighters that lined up at the base of the hill, only
six make it to the top.
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."
tremor passes through all the would-be white crosses. I
am among them.
think to myself: "More fatalities than any other county
in the state."
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.
note: Thanks to the USFS Arroyo Grande Flight Crew and wildlandfire.com
for the firefighter photo on the Berkeley home page