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‘Closest thing to war’: Bulldozer driver’s face fire hazards

RESCUE, California. – Not all firefighters carry a hose or a shovel.

The adrenaline junkies that send heavy bulldozers over steep ridges, serious hazards of smoke and flames, but also of unsteady dirt and steep terrain that could flip them over. The death of two bulldozer operators contend with forest fires in California in July highlighted the dangers to confront these less visible firefighters.

Braden Varney, 36, was clearing a fire line near Yosemite National Park on July 14 when his vehicle overturned and rolled down a ridge. Don Ray Smith, 81, was overtaken by wildfire near Redding last week.

Drivers of the so-called bulldozers say they are aware of the dangers and regularly find themselves in sticky situations. They do it for the thrill, the challenge, the good money and the opportunity to make a difference and save people lives and homes.

“For me, it is the closest thing to war without a shot,” said Dustin Westfall, a dozer operator working for a private contractor on fire in the area of Rescue that killed six people. “It is a cauldron … the wild. You get to see from 200 to 300 ft flame lengths. It is a whole other world. It’s a rush.”

Bulldozers are an integral part of the fight against the big brands, but are rarely seen in dramatic images of burning trees and it rains ashes.

They use approximately 10 feet (3 meters) of the blades to push shrubs, brush, grass, and even trees so that the advancing flames to bare dirt, and have nothing to consume. Ideally, the lack of fuel will stop the fire’s progress. At least, generally it will slow down the flames.

Bulldozers usually work in small groups in extremely steep terrain. Soft soil or hard granite may cause them to slide. It is difficult to see through the smoke and the amount of dirt in the shovel. Fire moves faster than heavy machinery, so shifting winds could send flames in the direction of bulldozers.

Because bulldozers can get into places no other equipment can achieve, the drivers sometimes are located far away from the back-up, with a call on the radio traffic and planes to tell them what the fire brigade does.

Some work close to the flames. Others build “contingency lines” further back to act as a safety net if the first rule is violated.

“They are a special breed of guys,” said Cliff Allen, president of the union representing California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection staff, including dozer operators. “The work that they do, it takes a special person, because they go up and down very steep terrain.”

Dozer operators looking to work directly for Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency, must have 500 hours of experience just to be considered. Private rented operators have different levels, but everything needs to be an annual course in fire line safety.

The authorities have released little information about how Varney and Smith died.

Their deaths come two years after a dozer trying to maneuver around a fire engine overturned near Big Sur and the operator was ejected. Another dozer operator was killed in the same region in 2007, when his rig rolled, causing him hit his head on the wall of the cabin, according to Cal Fire research reports.

The deaths weighed heavily on dozer drivers busy with an active fire season in the Western United States — a reminder of the dangers that await them on the fire line.

Dean Mullis, a childhood friend of Varney’s, and a fellow heavy equipment operator for Cal Fire, said the Shekel was devoted to his family and incredibly generous.

“Braden was going to a fire, get covered in dirt, come home and play crocodile with his children on his living room carpet,” Mullis said. “He was a man’s man, and he was a father in the first place.”

He came from a bulldozing family — his father was a dozer driver for Cal Fire, and the two began a grading and excavating business.

Smith, a bulldozer operator working for a private company on contract for the state, “always a number of good laughs and good stories” and liked to sit outside his trailer drinking beer with friends, said Vaughn Hohing, who used to fight fires as a bulldozer operator and said he often worked with Smith.

When he’s not fighting fires, Smith lived and worked on a horse ranch in Pollock Pines, east of Sacramento, the repair of things, snow plowing and performing other maintenance. Smith had a lot of experience working outdoors with heavy equipment.

At 81, Smith was one of the older boys are working on the fires, but dozer operators said it is common for people to work in their ’60s and’ 70s. Fighting fire is a specialized skill, and while the pay is good, it is an expensive business.

“If you are in a bad mood, go see Don,” Hohing said. “You always felt better when you left.”

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Associated Press reporter Sophia Bollag contribution of Sacramento.

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