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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Hurry Up And Wait....And Wait

It was just after midnight when we arrived at the newly forming secondary base camp (the main base camp was located in Groveland) at the Rim Fire. This camp was located in the town of Tuolumne. Our strike team leaders went to check us in and to see if we had an immediate assignment. We took the time to stretch our legs and check out the surroundings. We managed to find a map from the power company that showed what the fire was 24 hours earlier.

The header from bast camp.

About 30 minutes later we received word that we would be bedding down for the night. We parked next to several other strike teams all centered around a park. The 22 of us found a spot and laid out our sleeping bags. The thing I remember most was that we were sleeping next to a homeless man and his shopping cart. Really random.

This was what town looked like that first morning. That's not fog, it's smoke.

We awoke the next morning well before the sun was up. We made our way to the chow tent for breakfast. Mmmmhhhhmmmm, camp food (for the record that last sentence couldn't be dripping with more sarcasm). We also got our radios programmed. It was a fairly typical morning.

Engines and crews from all over the state and country.

A couple of the many pieces of heavy equipment at the fire.

An hour later our strike team leaders came back from the briefing with our assignment for the next 12 hours.

Rim Fire maps and assignments.

Sit tight and wait.

Poised and ready to work....really just fighting boredom.

The beginnings of base camp.

We staged all that day in the base camp. One of the guys on another crew had bought a football. We tossed it around for almost 20 minutes before someone told us to stop. The rest of the day was spent trying to fight off boredom.

That night we slept in the dirt behind our rig. We were now on day 2 without a shower and laundry was become a critical issue. The next day would prove to be a better one.

To be continued....

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Never Forget

Department photograph of the 343 firefighters that were killed in the attack of September 11, 2001.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Demobilization And Reassignment

The morning of our 5th day we found out we were leaving the Plumas Complex Lightning Fires. To do this we have to go through a process we call demobilization. To get through "demobe" we have to do a complete inventory of the engine. Mechanics go through the rig to make sure everything works. If there is any damage to the vehicle while on the fire it is documented. At the end we have to go through a car wash to make sure we don't carry an invasive plant like the star thistle to another part of the state (which is amusing since it's already everywhere).

Once cleared of the incident our strike team had to travel to Susanville. One of the other engines in our strike team had had a blow out and had to travel 2 hours to get 4 new tires. We were all hoping to get assigned to another fire raging somewhere in the state. Just as we arrived in Susanville we found out we were headed to the Rim Fire.

Here are some random pictures from the Plumas County Lightning Complex.

The fire was still crawling around.
A lone pine tree torches off.

An OES engine parked in town.
Sunset from base camp.

We left Susanville and headed down 395 toward Reno and Carson City. The air quality in both cities was horrible. A little girl at the gas station where we fueled up asked us to put the fire out so the smoke would go away.

From there we dropped down the Sierra Nevada mountain range to the town of Tuolumne. We arrived just after midnight. Tuolumne would be our base camp for the rest of our deployment.

Monday, September 9, 2013

More Of The Same

On day three we were again assigned to structure protection. To make things easier we were even assigned to the same structures.

This barn with the hay and historical truck was the most threatened building we were assigned.

Since the fire was not really coming our way in any hurry we spent the day parked outside our most threatened building listening to radio traffic. Always trying to get a mental picture of what the fire was doing.

We also happened to find an outhouse near where we were staged.

Fixer upper outhouse.

At one point during the day we decided to drive up an old logging road that traveled up behind the homes we were protecting. We ended up driving until we couldn't go any further and then had to back down. Some where along the trip the ground decided to reach up and bend the step below my door (if you're reading this and you're from my department this is in no way an accident report).

Before the repair work the step was bent so high it block the cabinet doors.

We spent a little while back at our barn doing some auto body work. Even with our limited tools we were able to make the step and the cabinet it was now blocking usable again.

At the end of the day we headed back to camp. That night we were able to sleep in tents. It was a good thing because it did end up raining.

Although sleeping on the ground was already getting old.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Yeah, They Look Good

The next morning on the strike team we awoke (to be honest we all woke up a lot that night) and got ready for the day. A little after 6 in the morning our strike team leader came back from the morning briefing with our assignment. We would be doing structure protection for the day.

Light smoke puffs from the mountain behind the town.

Structure protection is one of those assignments that is very important even when the building aren't in much danger. It comes down to public perception. It's peace of mind to the home owners. I can just picture the incident commander looking at our nice, fairly new, shiny engines all from the Governors Office of Emergency Services and thinking to himself that they would be perfect for instilling confidence in the local residents.

The first part of our shift we went around to the homes we were assigned to protect. We talked with the owners and learned about their property. What potential danger areas they had such as gasoline. And if they had any livestock that we needed to worry about.

Structure protection assignment.

At one such residence they had built everything there by hand. They had a workshop in the barn that would have made my dad proud. The wife came out to greet us and told us how grateful they were. The night before was the first night they had an engine sitting outside their house and she said it was the first time her family had been able to sleep since the fire began.

Later in the shift the fire started making a small run. One by one the crews from our strike team were pulled from our assignment and given a new one: direct fire attack.

We drove up to a small clearing and parked. There we donned hose packs, backpack water pumps and hand tools. Then we followed the hose line down the hill. And I mean down.

The blacked or burned area of the fire. Some of the terrain was even steeper.
We finally met up with the other crews at the end of the hose line. We were in a race to "hook" the fire. Hooking the fire is when we are able to work around the front of the fire stopping its forward progression. When a fire is burning uphill it's next to impossible to do. When it's moving downhill like this fire it's a challenge.

While we were working the weather report came in. There was a thunderstorm bearing down on us bringing with it very erratic winds. Every so often the radio would crackle and we would get an update. It was coming....soon.

We managed to stretch the hose line far enough to hook the fire. While some guys were working there others were hiking up and down the hill putting out spot fires that had slopped over our small fire line. Still others were making the trek back to the engines to get more supplies, hose and drinking water mostly.

Then it hit.

The wind picked up dramatically going from 1 and 2 mph breezes to 20+ mph gusts in all directions. The fire, now being fanned, grew. Containment lines were no longer effective. We were told to evacuate the fire line. We made a quick as you can march up the mountain side to the engines. Once we were all accounted for we headed down the hill before the rain made driving even more treacherous.

Thankfully the storm was just long enough to get everything wet. That in combination with nightfall (fires generally burn slower at night) slowed the fire down.

That evening our strike team was invited by one of the families in the are for dinner. They were making spaghetti, salad and garlic bread for all of us. Since there was still no food in base camp (even if there was it wouldn't be as good as a home cooked meal) and we didn't want more MRE's we gladly accepted. We ate in the barn/tool shop and it was delicious.

Dinner in the barn.

The family ended up cooking enough for a few other crews as well. They must have fed some 30 hungry firefighters. Amazing people.

If you read this, again, thank you.

To be continued....

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Other Lands

My shift was going along smoothly until just after lunch the phone rang. My battalion chief called to let me know that a the OES strike team was likely to get deployed.

OES or Governor's Office of Emergency Services, is a state agency set up to respond to emergencies usually but not always within the state. The state lends an agency an engine under contract that they will staff it and keep it maintained. In return the department gets the use of an engine paid for by the state. These rigs are easily identifiable because of their bright yellow/green color. Santa Clara County Fire Department has a good page on the history of OES.

Twenty minutes later I was heading over to the station that housed the OES rig. We were being deployed on a type 3 engine (similar to the one pictured above). After getting to the station and loading up my personal equipment we headed for the rally point. We would be meeting engines from 4 other agencies and together, with a BC as a leader, we formed a Strike Team.

Plumas County National Forest just outside of Taylorsville.

Hours later we arrived in Plumas County. There had been multiple lightning strikes in the are starting several fires. We were immediately assigned a flank of the fire. Another strike team had punched in a hose line to try and stop the fire. A hand crew had already dug a small line around the fire following the hose line. We were tasked with following up the line and making sure the fire didn't jump over the thin containment line.

The hose line we followed into the forest the night before.

We were working 12 hour shifts. This sounds good until you realize a 12 hour shift is 12 hours of work on the fire line. In your "off" time you have to travel to and from the incident (sometimes over 2 hours in each direction) resupply your engine of things you used in the last operational period such as hose, get briefed for the next shifts assignment, eat 2 meals, hopefully shower and maybe sleep. Sleep seems to suffer the most.

After a long night of hiking and putting out a little bit of fire we were finally released to go back to base camp and get some rest. Back at base camp we found that nothing had been set up yet. The fire was too new to have the giant logistical train of fuel, food etc. We had an MRE breakfast and then looked for a shady place to throw our sleeping bags to try and get some sleep. The only place that offered any real protection from sun and possible rain was the bleachers at a rodeo pavilion.

My pillow makes it look like there's a lot of room. It's folded in half and doesn't even fit width wise.

The problem with the bleachers is that they were about 3 inches too narrow at my shoulders. Once you laid down you were kind of wedged and there wasn't really enough room to move from one position to another. Once you were down, you were done. Between that and the hot day, sleep didn't happen much.

That afternoon we readied ourselves for another night of working. At the evening briefing we were informed to stand down. We would be resting that night as well so that we could be placed on the day shift. Fire is generally more active during the day because of higher temperatures and wind so this made sense. It had the added benefit of allowing us to try to sleep at night....again on the bleachers, because it was starting to drizzle.

To be continued....
© FireMedic and Firefighter/Paramedic Stories, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to FireMedic and Firefighter/Paramedic Stories with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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