California — For the men from the Lathrop-Manteca firehouse gathered near a smoldering subdivision called Camelot, the weariness hangs like smoke around them. The extent and intensity of the fires that have gouged the landscape across the state is something they have never seen.
For nearly a month, firefighters have been tugged from one place to another with little respite. Before arriving here to fight 40 fires that are collectively known as the Butte Lightning Complex, Brad Palmer had been fighting the Basin fire at Big Sur, on the central coast, Rod Pinelli and Gene Neely had been at the Indian fire, in Southern California, and Dave Ingram was busy at Mendocino, on the northern coast.
None of them had seen a season reach this level of intensity this fast. And it is still early in July.
The current season is unprecedented, said Ruben Grijalva, the director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, which is coordinating the response. Weve never had dry lightning strikes cover such an amount of territory. The dangers of fatigue are one of the main things on his mind.
The statewide fires that have filled the air with haze and in smoke-filled towns like Chico and Yuba City, have turned the sun and moon red are threatening to grind down the men and women who fight them. Crews used to working 24 hours at a shift are sometimes working two or three days straight.
The risks of fatigue are easily understood by those who work with heavy machinery or wield sharp instruments in rough terrain. Bulldozer drivers need to have their senses keen to cut a firebreak through the brush on a 10-percent grade. Division commanders need to adjust their strategy quickly to changing news from the fire lines, to ensure they do not put their crews at unnecessary risk.
But the capriciousness of the fire adds another level of risk. Crews working by hand to cut firebreaks are in danger if they forget to look up. Tired guys are just looking down, said Matthias Alonzo, part of an American Indian crew from New Mexico. Jerking his head left, right and upwards, he added, They dont do that, and then a tree falls on them.
If the fall brings the same intense fires as last year, the states new rotation system to keep firefighters fresh will be sharply tested. This is new territory for us, Mr. Grijalva said.
Under the current system, firefighters work in 24-hour shifts, instead of the 12-hour shifts. On the day between shifts, they do not go home. The first job is cleaning and maintaining the equipment, including gassing up fire trucks and sharpening the blades on the rake and hoe that are used to cut away brush and other fuel when carving a fire line.
Then the state provides them with a hotel room with blackout shades, Mr. Grijalva said. The core temperature of a firefighter working in 130-degree heat, he said, rises and must be brought down during the off-hours. That will not happen sleeping in the daytime in a pup tent in 105 degrees, he added.
The extent of the fires has constrained commanders who ordinarily have a lot of resources at their beck and call. Were used to going at things very hard, said Scott Lindgren, a battalion chief directing the assault on this fire complex, making people do 24, 48, 72 hours straight because we know the cavalrys coming.
This time, he added, we didnt have any relief.
Chris Mertens had fought two large fires in Butte County even before a lightning storm crossed the state June 20 and 21. He came off a 24-hour shift on Tuesday morning and had just been assigned a hotel room to get some sleep when his crew was sent out to protect homes in Paradise.
I havent been home since June 8, he said.
Firefighters staffing their regular stations often work on 24-hour or 36-hour shifts. But even with the total firefighting force at about 19,000 people, there is a dearth of manpower, which means long hours driving around the state.
The fires in California have taken turns at center stage. The Basin fire, which forced the evacuation of Big Sur and for a time closed 45 miles of Californias coastal highway, long had the marquee role; it is now 27 percent contained but burning away from the town. The Gap fire near Santa Barbara, which threatened the city of Goleta, moved into the leading role over the holiday weekend and is now 50 percent contained.
But the Butte complex, ignited by the lightning storm on June 21, has been, in the words of a Cal Fire official, a sleeping giant.
Early Tuesday morning, the giant awoke. As the hot valley air finished rising after midnight, cooler air came rushing down the Feather River canyons, about 20 miles east of Chico.
The fire jumped a containment line, joined with a small fire set to widen a firebreak, and swept through the Camelot subdivision. By that night, remnants of the blaze, resembling small campfires, crackled amid a smoky patchwork of untouched houses and charred foundations. The fire complex, 45 percent contained on Monday, was only 40 percent contained by Wednesday.
So the 24-hour rotation cycle was put on hold. Firefighters ready to end their shift were held over; those preparing to go to bed were kept near their equipment at the fairground in Chico.
The reason people like working 24, said Scott McLean, a public information officer with the Butte County fire office, is that in the daytime youre active, and at nighttime you can get the hoses in, get the lines in, tidy up. But, he added, this fire has not cooperated.