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



Taking calls from scared residents in the Pines Fire Information Office.
Taking calls from scared residents in the Pines Fire Information Office

Kurtz in the desert, the hike, and a hard-core introduction

SAN DIEGO COUNTY — Today is my first day at the fire station.

"Have you met Captain Loftus yet?" someone asks me. I haven't.

"He's hard-core, man. Prepare to get your attitude adjusted."

Captain Loftus is my own personal Kurtz — the Heart of Darkness in San Diego. Everyone talks about him, and eventually I will meet him. He is the fire station captain at Potrero, a small desert town in the rugged border country of rural San Diego County.

Our fire station and other CDF stations like it have fire and 911 responsibility for a large part of the San Diego backwoods. We work for the State of California, and our job is to provide emergency services to the places that no one else will.

"He won't admit it," the firefighter says, "but the Captain knows everything there is to know about fire."

To be honest, I am a little scared. The last week has been boring: a series of mandatory training classes in the interim between completing the highly structured fire academy and starting at the station. Haz-Mat, confined space rescue, CPR, communicable diseases — a dizzying sequence of sleep-inducing education. After a week, I have become a little complacent. My body is getting weaker.

In the academy, we hiked every morning. By Friday of the second week, I felt strong and ready for the fire season ahead of me. But the series of parties and social events that followed my graduation from the academy and the subsequent lack of exercise have taken their toll.

"At this station, you gotta study every day from 5 to 7 p.m. That's the rule," the senior firefighter explains. "I'm just telling you because one time we didn't study, and Captain Loftus took us to Potrero Peak and made us do hose lays until 9 at night. He's hard-core, man."

Hard-core is CDF's trademark. The department practices an aggressive, specialized style of fire suppression. They hit fires hard and they hit them fast. The standard dispatch to a vegetation fire in San Diego is 5 fire engines, three 20-person handcrews, and a multitude of helicopters and other aircraft.

This morning is my first day on duty. Today I can fight fire, today I can ride on the fire engine, today I am a real, practicing CDF Firefighter. Unfortunately, I have no engine — it has gone on a fire.


'I don't know what you normally look like, but you look a little pale.'

The Pines Fire started Monday afternoon. By Wednesday morning, the fire has become several thousand acres in size (49,000 acres at last count) and both the Potrero engines are assigned to the fire, probably to do structure protection. So instead, I am sent to Dulzura, a little town a few miles up the road from Potrero. Both are alongside Highway 94, a one-lane road that intersects the Mexican-American border in Tecate, a Mexican border town famous for its cheap cerveza.

I am greeted by a very friendly Captain O'Neal and a handful of firefighters, some of whom I know. After breakfast, those of us coming on shift must go for a hike.

"Now, I don't know in how good shape you're in," Captain O'Neal cautions us. "I don't want you to overexert yourself on this hike, so just work at a pace you are comfortable with."

I look at the hose packs lying on the shelf. "They aren't that heavy," I think to myself. Should I take one? One of the other experienced firefighters does. I lift the pack and it feels lighter than I expect, probably 45 pounds. "Oh, what the hell," I say aloud as I put the pack on my back.

The pack contains 300 feet of 1.5-inch hose, twice as much as I have ever carried. I find walking easy on level ground, but strenuous on an incline. The entire hike is on an incline, mostly a large, uphill jaunt. I keep right on the heels of the leader through most of the hike.

My legs feel surprisingly stout, but on the backside of the second hill, I feel a little woozy. I find myself panting and breathing too hard to be on an easy section. I can feel my heart straining. OK, time to take a break. After a little while, I take my pulse: 156 beats per minute, a little fast. I get up and manage another hill, then take another break. This time I decide to hand my pack to Drew, the only one among us without a pack. I unzip my fire shirt and get up, feeling much better.

Back at the station, Captain O'Neal stops in front of me, "You okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," I say, trying to recover. "Why?"

"Well, I don't know what you normally look like, but you look a little pale."

I go to the bathroom and look in the mirror. Whoa, I am pale. "Geez, that's not a good sign," I say aloud, staring at myself in the mirror.

Back outside, I pop open another Gatorade. One of the firefighters, an old Potrero veteran, looks at me, "Yeah man, Potrero Peak, that's hike's a bitch, a real ass-kicker. It's like this one, but harder. So, have you met Captain Loftus yet?"

"No," I say. "Am I supposed to be scared?"

The firefighter looks down at me. "Are you kidding, man? Captain Loftus is the best captain out there. You'll have a blast working with him."

"You think so?" I ask, puzzled.

"Definitely," he says, smiling. "Captain Loftus is hard-core."

—Matt Mireles

Pines Fire smoke column
The smoke column of the Pines Fire, over 50 miles away


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