Thousands of firefighters battle fatigue to keep King fire at bay

For a week now, firefighters have been trudging up and down the steep ravines of Eldorado National Forest carrying shovels, hoses and protective gear while they try to do the near-impossible: save every single building threatened by the King fire.

They typically work 24 hours straight – some have pulled 36-hour shifts – then take a one-day break sleeping in a tent, in an air-conditioned tractor-trailer that sleeps about a dozen, or, if they are lucky, an actual motel room.

It’s the grind they signed up for when they took the job. But in this drought year, fire officials are especially worried about the toll the 2014 fire season is taking on the men and women tasked with keeping California from becoming an inferno.

Dangerously dry conditions have already resulted in 1,000 more fires than would be expected in a normal year, and as the state moves into the most active season for wildland fires, authorities are nervously taking stock.

“This is something that we watch very carefully,” Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said Thursday, one day after the King fire had more than tripled in size to 73,000 acres. By Saturday, the fire had grown to 81,944 acres. “We have firefighters that have been on duty for weeks at a time, in some cases a month.

“When they do get off, it’s very short. It may be only a day, and then they’re right back on. And as you start getting into the later months of summer and fall, it absolutely can be wearing.”

Working conditions on the King fire are grueling. At 126 square miles, the fire is larger than the city of Sacramento, and officials say they have no idea when crews may be able to contain it.

They are relying on 5,000 firefighters from all over California to hold the line and keep the fire from incinerating communities along Highway 50 and beyond.

On Monday night, as the flames raged toward the highway from the north and threatened to burn over into the towns of Pollock Pines and Kyburz, there was some question about whether they could pull off the feat.

“We got whipped that first night,” said Paul Autry, a 36-year-old firefighter who came in with a group from Stanislaus County fire agencies early Monday. “We were on 50, and the fire hit where we were at. We had flames 300 feet high coming over us ...

“So it was a fight that night, and we got it knocked down. It was impressive. Very impressive.”

Autry, who has a 5-year-old daughter, Stella Rose, and a pregnant wife, Dayna, waiting at home, expects to be fighting the fire for at least two weeks with his co-workers. As they worked Thursday amid the flames, digging into the steaming hot earth and spraying water on hot spots, none of them worried about fatigue.

“You sign up for this job,” Autry said. “You’re not going to say, ‘I’m not going.’ ”

A few yards away, Josh Leslie, 34, a member of the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District, was working to keep the fire from spreading up the hill to where a home and a lodge were standing.

The King fire is the third he has worked this year, and he shrugged off concerns about the workload. “To be honest, it’s something we like,” he said. “We like leaving. Our department’s full of guys who want to go. We love the job anyway, so we can go all over the state and see different things.”

By the time this group arrived at the fire, officials had summoned so many firefighters to help that there was no room for them in the base camp at the El Dorado County fairground, and no rooms set aside for them after they ended their first 24-hour shift around 8 a.m. Tuesday.

So they found some rooms themselves, paid the $120 government rate out of their own pockets and didn’t worry about the fact that they will not be reimbursed.

“We were pretty beat up, we had driven all night,” said Alan Peluffo, a 31-year-old firefighter working alongside Leslie. “But we don’t care. I mean, we’re paying for our hotel room, but you know what? At least we’re saving these structures.”

All along the fire lines, individual firefighters have their own rules and routines for how to make it through the shift. Steve Herzog, a Pioneer Fire Protection District water tender driver, said members of the crew take catnaps when they can, with a lookout watching out for danger.

“You cross your arms on the steering wheel and put your head down in your arms,” Herzog, said, demonstrating the technique. “It’s actually not as horrible as it sounds.”

Steve Heine, a captain with the Marinwood Fire Department in Marin County, said he has pulled 36-hour shifts on some fires and has learned some basics. “No coffee, just water and Gatorade,” Heine said.

“But you do reach a point where you’re pretty exhausted,” he added. “You’ve got four guys in a crew, so you try to keep the guys talking to each other. You keep them hydrated and you know that at some point you’ll be relieved.”

Modesto city firefighter Mark Crook, whose impressive gray mustache hints that he has been at the job since 1984, can’t follow the no-coffee routine. But he does have another inviolable rule: He has to call his 72-year-old mother every day he’s at a fire to say he’s all right.

“Otherwise, she’s going to lay awake all night,” Crook said. “I’m 55 years old and I’m still calling my mom to keep her calm.”

The people who oversee the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection efforts count on the unflappable nature of the firefighters, but they also employ a sophisticated mutual aid system that allows them to pull firefighting teams from virtually any department in the state.

That is why there are so many teams fighting the King fire from the southern reaches of the state, which tends to have wildfires later in the season and can offer more help now, and it is why at last week’s Boles fire in Weed you could see engines from Escondido driving past others from Placer County.

Pimlott, the Cal Fire director, said rotating units among various departments is particularly difficult this year because the drought has made fire much more intense and much faster moving than in previous years.

Last week, the National Interagency Fire Center issued a bulletin for Northern California firefighters through its predictive services branch that warned of continuing “extreme fire behavior.”

“Expect fires to ignite easier and spread faster due to low live and dead fuel moistures,” the advisory warned, adding that “local and incoming fire personnel need to be aware that fire behavior is exceeding normal expectations for this time of year.”

The Boles fire in Weed illustrates the danger. That Monday afternoon blaze was one of the smallest of the year, 375 acres, but roared to life so quickly that it became the year’s most destructive so far, destroying 150 structures and homes, including three belonging to firefighters.

“The battalion chief who was in charge made some very conscious decisions about how he had to stop this fire,” Pimlott said. “That included allowing his house to burn. ... It brings the story home what these people gave to the community. They had to write off their neighborhood to protect others, and they really saved the town.”

More fire dramas could be coming. Instead of winding down operations in several weeks, as they normally would, fire officials say they may have to keep their firefighting resources at the ready through the winter.

“Nothing is going to change until it rains,” Pimlott said. “And I mean significant rain.”

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