Photos from the Vault

Fighting wildfires is dirty, difficult and dangerous work

Mark Linane of the U.S. Forest Service shaves after taking a four-hour rest period while fighting the Hi Mountain Fire in July 1988.
Mark Linane of the U.S. Forest Service shaves after taking a four-hour rest period while fighting the Hi Mountain Fire in July 1988. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

National origin stories shape the way people talk.

A favorite American story is the Boston Tea Party. Indignant citizens defy imperial government with tax revolt. Taxes bad, government bad — Don’t Tread On Me.

Often left out are the failures as the Continental Congress conducted a low-budget war.

The inability to reconcile low taxes with an expensive war led to 2,000 to 3,000 malnourished and badly clothed troops dying in Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-78 under the command of Gen. George Washington.

Seen flying last week over a house in the Chimney Fire zone was a yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flag.

While I was walking in the fire zone, a firefighter said hello. He was sleep-deprived, red-eyed and had driven a long way to fight the Chimney Fire, the second-largest wildfire in the state right now.

His yellow jacket streaked with gray ash, he had been rotated off the fire line for a meal and had tuned in to a local radio station to listen to music. He scrolled past someone on a call-in show complaining that firefighters are overpaid.

I expressed sympathy. We told each other to be safe and headed our own ways.

The radio caller’s ingratitude was an exception — more common is the firefighter support rally planned for Saturday at Flamson Middle School.

An Aug. 22 story by Don Thompson of the Associated Press said California’s state fire department is stretched thin as it battles major wildfires throughout the state. Spokeswoman Janet Upton said: “It’s not the old days where we were a seasonal department with a season that lasted a few months. It is an increasingly challenging job, no thanks to Mother Nature and climate change.”

In the same story, Cal Fire Capt. Patrick Walker said he had worked 47 days straight. And it’s not just Cal Fire — agencies from all over the West are working together in the best tradition of cooperative community service.

There are big fires in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties. John Lindsey’s weather column recently said with climate change, this may be the new normal.

The work has always been gritty. David Wilcox wrote this story for the Telegram-Tribune on July 7, 1988:

Weary, but they battle on

Cooled by an afternoon breeze that might later betray him, firefighter Kevin Chambers quietly prepared for another night’s battle.

In about two hours, Chambers would lead his crew into steep terrain thick with old brush near Garcia Ridge and pick up where he left off early Wednesday morning — combating a stubborn blaze fanned by what he described as “erratic” winds.

For now, however, Chambers and other U.S. Forest Service firefighters slowly stirred from a slumber that had evaporated too quickly beneath the trees at the Pozo Ranger Station.

Men and women, exhausted following an 18-hour standoff with the flames, could savor only about four hours sleep — nodding off to the lullaby of whirring helicopter blades.

Less sleep, said Chambers, is a trade-off one makes to beat back flames during the cooler night hours.

“It’s not for everyone,” said Chambers of San Luis Obispo, as he sat atop a picnic table and laced his boots.

Nearby, fire officials plotted their next attack in a late afternoon sun whose glare was deadened by the smoky haze from the flames.

Helicopters hovered over a meadow, having bombarded the blaze with their watery weapon and ready to reload.

American Red Cross nurse Becky Easton of Atascadero sipped soda while awaiting the day shift’s return. So far, she said, only one firefighter — who fell on an ax and slit his knee — had been taken to the hospital.

Chambers scoured off soot and grime from his bearded face and eyed the familiar activity of the makeshift camp. A nine-year Forest Service veteran, Chambers heads the Santa Lucia Max II hand crew — whose members are mostly San Luis Obispo residents.

“We’re local,” he said. “This is backyard stuff.”

He pointed out that only about a week ago his crew had trained on slopes near the Hi Mountain fire.

“So we know this country well,” he said. “We’re one of the closest hand crews.”

That camaraderie — especially evident in the easy-going atmosphere between sleep and battle — is strained when fires stretch on for days and weeks.

“After a couple of weeks it starts to be a drag,” said Chambers. “This crew’s been on a fire for 21 straight days before without a day off, so that gives you an idea.

“I would say that people who (become firefighters) on a whim don’t last very long.”

Some Forest Service firefighters from Santa Barbara County were gearing up for the night’s task with a few beers at the Pozo Saloon. Not Chambers’ crew, though. His people, he said, ‘have too much work to do now.”

“Give us a few more days and we’ll be over there.”

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942, dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com, @DavidMiddlecamp

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