ANDERSON, California, Exhausted and hungry, some 12,000 fire fighters work 24-hour shifts to fight deadly forest fires California and still down at the fire seasons that start earlier, burn longer and get increasingly unpredictable characters.
“There is a lot going on here, endless burn, and they are all characteristic pretty much the same — windy, dry and hot,” firefighter James Sweeney said before heading out for a meal and a nap.
Sweeney, of St. Petersburg, Florida, is a “hotshot”, part of an elite team of highly trained wildland firefighters that the fire season to fight the strongest brands in the country.
Tired, after more than a day on the fire lines, the 43-year-old said when his Gila, New Mexico on the basis of the crew is leaving California, he expects to go north in Oregon, where a new fire to kick.
“These days it’s crazy,” he said. “We give our whole life, the whole summer.”
Crews made progress this weekend at the Carr Fire in the vicinity of Redding, approximately 230 miles (370 kilometers) north of San Francisco. But it was still threatening thousands of homes and was not expected to be fully contained until mid-August at the earliest.
For many of the firefighters are beating down the 9000-calorie meals between shifts, the non-stop at work has become routine.
Last year, a quick series of fires in Santa Rosa, just north of San Francisco, and elsewhere in Northern California, killed 44 people and destroyed more than 8,000 structures. Last year December, Thomas Fire near Santa Barbara burned almost 282,000 hectares (440 square miles), becoming the largest wildfire in the history of California.
In his 19 years on the job, Cal Fire Capt. Chris Anthony said that the most important change is that the warmer, drier conditions now say that firefighters are trained to a “tactical pause” to review before charging in against the flames.
“Fire has become a lot more unpredictable,” he said. “In the past we could plan, but these days, a fire can be a sudden and dangerous turn.”
That’s what happened Thursday when the fire near Redding, rotated, and exploded in size, with hundreds of homes and killing five people, two of them firefighters. One other firefighter was killed in the month, dealing with a giant fire near Yosemite National Park.
Firefighter Jason Campbell was on the front lines Thursday in the vicinity of Yosemite when the Carr Fire destroyed his home, an RV and a boat in the vicinity of Redding. Redding police chief Roger Moore also lost his house.
Capt. Jarrett Grassl, a 19-year-old veteran, who works for the Higgins Fire District, in the North of California, said his crew ran in homeowners trying to save their own properties. The threat of dwellings reflects the diminishing gap between the wilderness and in urban areas.
“Each year it seems to be a bigger problem,” Grassl said Saturday in 110 degree weather with zero precipitation.
Fighting forest fires is almost always dangerous and grueling, but experienced firefighters said the Carr Brand is even warmer, dryer and more irregular than they are accustomed to.
Crews used shovels, hoses and chainsaws to corral huge walls of fire burned through the canyons and steep gulches. The air was thick with smoke and dust as they hauled heavy gear up and down unstable slopes, grabbing mouthfuls of the water where they could. They mostly worked in silence, with the sound of breaking branches and roaring flames drowning out the radio.
Nevada County Fire Captain Nathan Menth calls California weather system “of the extended summer.” The completion of the fire hose gear after spending the night protecting a Salvation is near, and he said that he was surprised by how quickly the fire spread.
“The wind came,” he said. “It was out of hand.”
But 13 years into his career, that chaos is something he should expect.
There was a small ray of hope in his last shift. As the flames leap from one pine to the next, creating a canopy over the fire, his team stopped the truck in a driveway in the near scattered oak, expect the wildfire to remain off.
“But this is an oak tree, it slowed it down,” he said. “I don’t know why, but it just didn’t torch out. And that allowed us to turn the fire off the houses, to be proactive instead of reactive.”