Blazing Northern California fire season takes toll on firefighters, families

Blazing Northern California fire season takes toll on firefighters, families

17 September 2013


USA — As the night sky filled with orange flames, Ken Pridmore chopped and cut. For 24 straight sleepless hours, the Cal Fire captain and his crew of inmate firefighters battled Mount Diablo’s steep terrain, trying to control the Morgan Fire.

“If there’s work to be done, it keeps you going,” Pridmore said. “But if you stop for a second, that’s when you get beat.”

It’s the season of adrenaline and fatigue for Pridmore and other firefighters — a season that so far looks to be the toughest in some time. While the Morgan Fire was news in the Bay Area for just a few days, Pridmore and his 13-man crew from the Delta Conservation Camp in Solano County remain on the mountain a week later, working 12-hour days to mop up hot spots. After a few more days of rehabilitation work, they will finally be done — and off to fight the next big blaze.

Working up to three or four days without sleep, fire crew members catch naps when they can, maybe 10 minutes in the fire engine or against a tree, said Capt. Nick Luby of the Oakland Fire Department.

And forget about hot meals until the shift is over. Regular servings are MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) and snacks and water stored in the firetrucks, firefighters said.

Working last week at Camp Parks in Dublin, a base camp for Morgan Fire crews, Luby tried to track how long he’d been awake.

“Is it 24 hours or 36? I’m so tired I can’t do the math,” he said. “There’s a reason they use sleep deprivation as torture.”

Luby, a 14-year fire veteran, was eating ice cream with his daughters, having just returned from two weeks at the Corral Fire in Humboldt County, when he got the call to prepare for the blaze on Mount Diablo.

“Some summers are great, where there’s not a lot of incidents and you get to stay home with your family,” he said. “Then there’s summers like this.”

Arriving early and spurred by abnormally dry conditions, this Northern California wildfire season has been busy. According to Cal Fire, the state so far this season has had 36 percent more fires on state lands than during the same period in 2012.

“We had one of the driest rainy seasons ever last winter,” Cal Fire spokesman Dennis Mathison said. “All you need is a spark and you’re off and running.”

No one knows that better than the fire gypsies who spend the season moving from one blaze to another. Nearly all Bay Area fire departments take part in the California Emergency Management Agency’s Master Mutual Plan, which directs local crews to fires on state and federal lands.

Mark Tait, of Danville, a lieutenant with the East Bay Regional Park District’s fire department, doesn’t get much time at home during the high season.

He barely had time to wash clothes and repack after 11 days at the Aspen Fire in the Sierra before he was moved to the Rim Fire in and around Yosemite. Then, after just a few days off, he was called to Mount Diablo.

He has worked all but three days in the past month.

“It’s really tough mentally,” Tait said. “You’re living out of a bag for 14 days at a time. … You’re putting your life on hold. You’re missing stuff that you’re never going to get back.”

For Tait’s 15-year-old daughter, Carey, fire season comes at the worst time.

“He always ends up going away right at the beginning of the school year,” she said. “It’s weird to not have him here.”

According to Santa Clara County Fire Battalion Chief Kendall Pearson, thanks to budget cuts and staffing shortages, much of the manpower burden during wildfire season is shouldered by the firefighters who remain back at the station for days at a time.

“When these guys go off, we’re scrambling to keep guys here at home,” Pearson said. “We still need to serve our communities.”

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, more than 550,000 acres of state and federal land have burned in the state in 2013. With little rest in between, the season can be physically draining.

San Ramon Valley Fire District firefighter-paramedic Lucas Hirst battled not only the flames but a sinus infection from breathing noxious smoke and poison oak at the Rim Fire.

“You’re run-down a little,” Hirst said. “But we signed up for it. We’re not going to go home and rest knowing our guys are in a firefight. We can’t just leave them behind.”

The missed birthdays and anniversaries, and the toll on physical health, are worth the demands, firefighters say, if it means saving homes, gaining experience and assisting their colleagues.

“We all want to help somebody,” Hirst said. “I’m giving back. … It’s that internal reward.”

After Mount Diablo rehabilitation efforts, Cal Fire’s Pridmore expects to go south in the fall, where fierce Santa Ana winds will wreak the usual havoc.

But how long the season will run lies at the whim of the weather.

“We’ll see what Mother Nature brings,” he said.


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