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



A water-dropping chopper joins in the firefight.
A water-dropping chopper joins in the firefight. Matt Mireles photos

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

SAN DIEGO COUNTY — You can always see the smoke first — the blacker the smoke, the hotter the fire.

"Put the $%#@ing camera down and get your @&%$ ready," she stammered impatiently, putting on her gloves.

The Canyon Fire was spewing out a column of dense, black smoke. At the fire's head, flames reached 20 feet into the air. I snapped one last picture and set down the camera. My crewmember glanced at me with approval.

The dirt road ended in front of a dilapidated house. The smoke hung over the house a little bit, but the wind was pushing it so that it was moving less toward and more parallel to us. We were 300 feet, or 3 "sticks" — 100 ft equals one "stick" of fire hose — from the fire. Overhead, the first airtanker dropped orange fire retardant into the darkest column of smoke.


The fireline is no place for flaring tempers. As Captain Shoemaker put it, "This is an exciting job; don't get excited."

Each firefighter put on one hose pack, amounting to 3 sticks of 1.5-inch fire hose per pack. The senior firefighter on shift was the designated nozzleman (person who squirts the water) and crew leader. The rest of us "pulled hose" (helped carry the charged line) and hauled hose packs. One person, the clamper, pinches the charged line with a special hose clamp to shut off the water when attaching another stick of hose.

At the end of our third stick, we were 20 feet shy of the fire front. The flames were about 10 feet in the air. Circumstances had dictated that we attempt a hazardous frontal assault on the fire, getting in front and knocking down its head with water. Our usual alternative, a flanking maneuver, was not feasible.

The nozzleman, seeing that we were short on hose, looked back at us:"Let's wait for the fire to come to us."

"Screw that, get another stick," someone suggested. The next 100 feet hit the ground.

"Clamp it," the nozzleman ordered.

"Clamp on." A firefighter blocked water flow to the nozzle, allowing the nozzleman to remove the nozzle.

"Water one." Another firefighter screwed the ends of the hoses into one another.

"Water two," the nozzleman answered, screwing the nozzle onto the new section of hose.


"Water coming," the clamper shouted, unclamping the hose, allowing the next section to fill with water.

The whole process happened quickly, with different people doing each task simultaneously. With the water flowing, we lurched forward. Suddenly, we were engulfed in thick smoke and steam.

I pulled down my goggles and facial shroud. Shielded by two layers of protective clothing, I could feel a sudden increase in temperature. The goggles had become uncomfortable where they formed a seal around my eyes. My left elbow, bent and pressed tight against my shirt, started to burn. Water dripped from my eyes.

"That's hose," someone called out to signal that the stick was fully extended.

We had established a "wetline," anchored off the dirt road, spraying and extinguishing 50 feet of material along the burning perimeter. As we shut down to add another stick of hose, the fire, still actively burning 15 feet in front of us, changed direction. A slight gust of wind caused it to burn back toward us, throwing black smoke in our direction.

"We might have to pull back on this one," the nozzleman ordered, directing everyone to go out the way we came in — down the road and toward the engine. As everyone stepped back, I made a suggestion, "Why don't we just go into the burn?"

As counterintuitive as it seem, the principle is pretty basic: Entering an area that has already burned provides us with the assurance that we will not be caught in the active part of the fire. As they told us in the academy, "Your best safety zone is always 'in the black.'"

The nozzleman was infuriated. "How many seasons have you been doing this?" he screamed.

"Two," I said, caught off guard.

"Well, you're a #@&*ing dumb&*$% and you don't know what you're doing," he yelled in my face. "Listen to the people who have more experience than you."

What struck me was that this guy was actually a first-year firefighter. Though he outranked me at the station, I was his senior in the fire world. And besides, I was just making a commonsense suggestion. Nonetheless, I let him have his way.

He backed up into the unburned brush, and I just stepped out of the smoke and into the burn.

"We got water," the clamper announced. An airtanker whined overhead. With that, everyone went back to work.

Mireles after the fire.
Mireles after the fire.

The frontal assault was a success. Our wetline had extinguished the hottest part of the fire. After laying all my hose, I returned to the engine for a shovel, good for throwing dirt onto burning "hotspots" to put the fire out.

As I hotspotted, the nozzleman passed me on his way to the engine. We didn't say a word to each other. "Who does this guy think he is?" I thought to myself.

But the fireline is no place for flaring tempers. As Captain Shoemaker put it, "This is an exciting job; don't get excited."

Interactions were tense today because we do know each other, and as firefighters we must rely upon each other for our own survival.

I smoldered as I hotspotted along the line. After a few minutes, I decided to deliver a water I'd promised to one of my crewmembers. On my way down the line, I ran into a 20-person handcrew from the California Department of Corrections. They're the low-budget backbone of California's wildfire defense. Upon seeing their orange helmets, I opted to avoid them (and their chainsaw, now in the lead) by stepping through some unburned brush.

I noticed a small cactus. "No big deal, I have two pairs of pants on," I thought. Seconds later, I was cursing aloud, picking at the hundreds of cactus spines caught in my right knee.

At the same time, a siren sounded. "Oh $%&*," I grumbled, looking up. A water-dropping helicopter was headed straight for me. "You gotta be kidding me."

I sprawled myself out into the brush, with my head toward the coming water drop. My knee went back into the cactus. Still bracing myself for the drop, I felt a wind rush past me. The thack-thack of the helicopter passed overhead. Still, no water.

I looked up to see the helicopter drop a shower of water 60 feet behind me. "Dammit," I muttered, pawing at my knee again. After a vain attempt at removing the cactus by hand, I headed back towards the engine. Each step dug the spines deeper into my knee.

At the engine, I changed pants and returned to the line. Seeing that the hoselay was complete, I started a process known as "mopping up." You look for smoke rising from the ground and feel for heat with your hand, then dig up the hotspot and mix it with dirt and water, fully extinguishing it.

Our nozzleman, passed me again. "Where's your other glove?" he asked, angrily. "Right here," I returned, pointing to my front pocket. "I'm mopping up."

"Man, you got an attitude problem," he said, staring at me. "You're not a team player, you do your own thing, you act like you know everything. When Captain Loftis gets here..."

"Look, it's called cold-trailing," I interrupted. "You take off one glove and feel for heat, then mop up the hotspots." A hot breeze passed between us, lifting up a small puff of smoke.

"I know what it's called." He shook his head. "You're either gonna do your own thing and ship out of here, or your gonna get your attitude adjusted and shape up."

"Dude," I said, my face now red, "You need to calm down."

We stared at each other for a moment, then he turned to walk away. I slammed my shovel into the black ground, breaking it apart. White smoke wafted up toward me as I leaned over. Overhead, the thwack-thwack of the chopper faded. I looked up to see the helicopter high in the sky, heading north.

Another fire.

—Matt Mireles


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