USA – At some point in childhood, a young boy or girl will announce they want to be a firefighter. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Capt. Dusty Gyves’ son is no different.
But Gyves has been fighting the sixth worst wildfire in California history for a month straight, and he doesn’t necessarily want his son to grow up to be like his dad.
“This job wouldn’t be the first thing I’d tell my kid I want him to do,” Gyves said. “… There’s a lot of firemen’s kids who actually grow up hating the fire department. You ask them why and they say, ‘Well, because my dad’s never home.’”
In addition to fighting seemingly endless wildfires this summer, firefighters often find their personal lives taking a toll when they aren’t home. There are divorces, struggles with alcohol and post-traumatic stress that stems from the demanding schedule. For some, it’s too hard to bear: Suicide deaths for the profession ranged in the triple digits last year alone.
Gyves is one of the firemen at Cal Fire’s Station 58, located on a hill along what is now now desolate, charred wasteland in the area where west Redding meets the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Rusted and scorched cars sit on the side of Highway 299 and white ash falls from nearby trees when the breeze hits just right.
The Carr Fire destroyed nearly 230,000 acres of forest, national parkland and Redding-area communities. As of Thursday night, the monster blaze was declared 100 percent contained.
The land has taken a beating, but the department’s firemen and women have found their morale equally hard to salvage.
Station 58 is not a home away from home. It has just been home, period, for the unit’s men and women over the past 40-plus days.
One firefighter has logged more than 930 hours of overtime. Gyves didn’t sleep for 50 hours during the peak of the Carr Fire. Dillion Dow, in his sixth season with Cal Fire, hasn’t been home since he was put back on rotation in June.
And even as the last embers of the Carr Fire are extinguished, the men and women at Station 58 know their relaxation is fleeting. They’re still in the middle of California’s peak fire season.
“It has been pretty much non-stop,” Cal Fire Supervisor Danny Rackley said. “There truly is no end in sight.”
‘Our own backyard’
On Monday, July 23, metal from the rim of a trailer’s wheel scraped the road, sending a spark flying into the dry shoulder of Carr Powerhouse Road just west of Whiskeytown Lake. Chaos ensued.
“This one was in our own backyard,” Dow said. “We go to fires like this once a year, but they’re always somewhere else.”
The fire spread rapidly and by that Thursday reached Redding. The flames sucked in so much oxygen that they created a tornado of fire in one of Redding’s neighborhoods. Lette Sanchez, another firefighter at Station 58, said she saw her childhood home go up in flames.
It’s easy, Gyves said, to become numb to wildfires when you see them day-in and day-out.
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“At the beginning of your career, fire is a rush,” Gyves said. “After a while, fire becomes a job. We’ve got to go work. The excitement isn’t there, but this fire raised the bar.”
Still, the aftermath curbs any adrenaline rush pretty quickly. Reality and devastation set back in.
Eight people were killed, including three men who were called in to battle the flames. One of them, fire inspector Jeremy Stoke, was from the Redding Fire Department. He was a friend and firefighting brother to the members of Station 58.
“It’s a risk we all know is out there,” Gyves said. “You don’t think about it. You just don’t walk around thinking about it. But we all knew him. … He was that familiar face.”
Moments when a firefighter dies are confusing, according to the staff at Station 58. There’s a lot of miscommunication, a lot of text messages and phone calls from friends and families to make sure the newspaper headlines and TV reports aren’t referring to their son or daughter.
“You don’t even realize how much your family worries,” Gyves said. “To us it’s just coming to work. It’s super heavy. What’s normal to us is cheating death to them.”
Redding cares a lot about the firefighters: A quick drive around town reveals hundreds of signs expressing love and support. The men and women of Station 58 are grateful for that.
But they also know that the outpouring of support may be fleeting.
“The problem is that it’s short-lived,” Gyves said. “I’ll give it until October until the signs are gone and we’re just back to being a fireman.”
And the daily life of a firefighter, especially in the heat of a particularly severe wildfire season, is far from easy.
Many are seasonal employees, young men and women who come on during the height of the summer’s routine natural disaster. Many hope to eventually become full-time supervisors.
During the Carr Fire, Station 58 was understaffed. Rackley said the state hired more than 300 people to help Cal Fire out, but their station received only 11 new bodies.
So the men who were fighting the fire for 27, 33 or even 41 days straight weren’t rotated out.
Even fighting a historic wildfire becomes boring day-in and day-out when there’s little time to relax.
Tyler Bushey, a Cal Fire operator, compared being a firefighter to the movie “Groundhog Day,” the 1993 comedy starring Bill Murray in which a man lives the same day of his life again and again.
“It’s hard to keep a positive attitude for months on end,” Bushey said. “And when you go home it’s weird. Transforming back to civilian life is hard.”
What they signed up for
The chaotic monotony of a sleep-deprived firefighter’s life has a lot of hidden dangers, deep-rooted problems beneath the surface.
Outside of seeing areas all across the Golden State being devastated by fire, firefighter’s personal lives often take an immense toll.
“Our families at home know that when we’re coming back into work that they may not see us for a month,” Rackley said.
They can all think of a barbecue, a wedding or an anniversary they’ve missed because of a fire. Dow’s dad was a fireman. He can remember blowing out candles on his birthday cake at the station, surrounded by men and women in yellow helmets and dirty boots.
“I already know when I go to work that I should not expect to be home for some time,” Dow said. “I just expect it so I’m not disappointed.”
That cynicism doesn’t come out of nowhere. It slowly creeps in. Gyves said he sees it all the time. New firefighters who sleep in their clothes just in case an alarm goes off.
“For the new people it’s easier,” Gyves said “Everyone wanted to be a fireman when they’re a little kid, so now they’re out there doing it.”
But Dow said he has seen a lot of divorce and alcoholism among the ranks of firemen he’s been around over the years.
“Sitting here you just laugh off a ton of stuff,” Gyves said. “There’s divorces, relationships tank all the time, because guys aren’t home enough.”
Cal Fire has resources meant to address mental health and post-traumatic stress among firefighters — and many avail themselves of the tools.
Another thing that many firefighters said gets them through is life at the station, joking with the fellow firefighters. But sometimes that isn’t enough.
In 2017, 103 firefighters died by suicide compared to 93 who died on the job, according to a study from the Ruderman Family Foundation, an organization that works for the rights of people with disabilities.
When asked what provides the greatest relief from the overwhelming workplace stress, many of the firefighters said it’s getting away — when they can.
“You learn to cherish your days off,” Tyler Woods said. “But I wouldn’t want any other job.”
There are a lot of reasons to stay in the fire service, too: the adrenaline rush, seeing new places, money, even the fact that society views it as an honorable profession.
“It’s what we signed up for,” Gyves said.
“I’ll be driving back home and I’ll see smoke for days,” Dow said. “And you just feel like you should be back at work.”
Another Carr Fire will come
The residents of Station 58 have learned to take comfort in the little things so they can break up the monotony of station life.
Some days instead of cooking they’ll go and order pizza. Sometimes they’ll go grab a cup of coffee. Right now, the lull in the summer heat has been a silver lining to an intense summer.
Rackley said this year has been unusual. The crew started losing sleep and time back home when there were multiple 100,000-plus acre fires outside of Shasta County in June. They hoped to get some rest after that.
But then there was the Carr Fire in July, then the Hirz Fire raging on through August and into September. They hope to get a breather soon, but they’re not optimistic. Another disaster could come calling today, tomorrow or next week.
“The chances are we’ll see another fire like the Carr Fire, somewhere, this summer,” Gyves said “This happened at the end of July, and that’s early in fire season for us … and then you’re back to zero.”