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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A Day Of Rest...And Laundry

After having been on 12 hour work cycles for a while we had just been switched to 24 hour one. It's so much better. Sure you have to work 24 hours straight on the fire line but actually get time for R&R. In a 12 hour cycle you have 12 hours "off." In your off time you have travel time to and from the fire (I've had 2 1/2 hour travel times one way), replenishment of the supplies such as hose that you used, two meals (one as you get off, one before you start), a morning briefing, getting water and lunches for the day, maybe a shower and somewhere in there....sleep. On a 24 hour cycle there's time to do all of those things and get a rest.

Getting laundry washed.

On our first 24 hour rest period we voted, as a strike team, to go get a hotel. We split up two to a room and paid for it out of our own pocket. I took a long hot shower and then went to do laundry. Clean and dry clothes were quickly becoming scarce.

Fire station in old town.

By noon we were clean and ready for some relaxation. We went through the town of Columbia. They have an old western section where you can catch a carriage ride and pan for gold. None of us struck it rich. Columbia is also home to CalFire's air attack base and it was the temporary home for helitack for the Rim Fire. We headed over that way for a look/see.

'Air Attack' coming in for fuel.

At the airport we discovered that we had to walk over to a temporary air control tower to get permission to cross the runway over to the helitack base. Before crossing the runway we had to wait for Air Attack (the guy in the air that controls all airborne resources on the fire). Then we headed over to see the helicopters.

An ANG Blackhawk coming in for landing. Below it on the ground are a Sky Crane and another Blackhawk.

There were 8 UH-60 Blackhawks from the ANG, 1 Bell UH1 Huey for long lining supplies into hand crews, 1 of the S-64 Erickson Sky Cranes, and 1 K-1200 Kaman K-MAX. We were able to watch for an hour or so while helicopters came in, refueled and left. It was a great experience.

Refueling and repairing an ANG Blackhawk.

That evening we had a good meal at one of the local restaurants and then called it a day. We were up and on the road by 5 in the morning for the next shift.

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Contingency Plan

The next work period started like all the others. Pack up the sleeping gear, grab breakfast, clone the radios, get lunches and water for the day and get briefed on the days activities. It really began to seem like Groundhog Day.

Sunrise over base camp.

We were assigned to the structure protection group in Twain Harte. During our briefing we were told that the fire was still 5 miles away and that no homes in the town were threatened. However....the weather was predicted to be the same as it was 2 days previously when the fire grew over 50,000 acres in one afternoon. It was traveling at over 6 mph. So we were the contingency plan. If the fire line 5 miles away didn't hold we were it.

The area in Twain Harte we were tasked with defending.

We spent the day assessing the few homes that to which we were assigned. The new fire service vernacular describes homes in one of two categories: Defensible and indefensible. We had much simpler words. Winners or losers.

One of the homes we "defended."

Out of the 5 homes that we had under our protection 2 were indefensible.There was no brush clearance, they had solid tree cover right up to the roof, the roof and patios were covered in pine needles. You get the picture. One of the homes had a lot of tree cover but was otherwise in good shape. We thought we had a good shot at protecting that one. The other two would probably survive a fire even without us there.

The view from where we had lunch.

After making the rounds and talking with the residents we went up to the house with the best view of the area. There we had lunch and talked some more with the home owners. They invited us to crash at their house that night if we needed it. We told them we'd keep that in mind.

Signs like this were everywhere. They really buoyed my spirits, especially after being out for 12 or 13 days.

That afternoon the winds never developed. The forecasters were wrong. Shocking, I know. So that evening our division leaded pulled us out of the neighborhood and back the the elementary school that was our staging area. We all through out our sleeping bags on the gymnasium/cafeteria floor and promptly fell asleep.

These bulldozers drew the proverbial line in the sand from Tuolumne to Twain Harte.

The thin brown line. The Dozer line.

All the smoke detectors in the area had been disconnected because of the amount of smoke in the air. That night, just like on other nights, the winds died down and the smoke settled. At various times throughout the night guys awoke to find the room we were sleeping in more and more smokey. None of us took special note.


Then next morning, long after we had left, the school principal came to check on the school. He found smoke on the inside banked all the way down to the ground. After an investigation it was discovered that the AC unit had caught fire and that was what was smoking out the building the previous night. We didn't know it but we had come close to being victims of another fire while fighting the Rim Fire.
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