5 Ways Fighting Wildfires Is More Insane Than You Think
The American West is the real Fire Nation: It spends roughly half the year consumed by wildfires. In fact, since the beginning of the decade, these fires have only grown more common and more deadly. A sensible species would've fled the entire American Southwest for the frosty hinterlands of Canada long ago, but not Homo sapiens. We'll be damned if a pesky little thing like advancing walls of deathly flame keep us from hangin' out in our favorite spots. I'm Drew Miller, professional wildland firefighter. I protect people's sacred right to live in places that regularly combust. Here's what I've learned on the job ...
You Literally Fight Fire With Fire
Water does not put out a wildfire. That's one of the first lessons the Bureau of Land Management taught us. Wildfires aren't like the house fires you encounter when your perpetually stoned roommate tries to microwave a Pop-Tart still in the foil wrapper. Those fires are measured in feet and yards. Wildfires are measured in tens of acres. There's not enough water in California to douse one of those. The planes and helicopters you see on the news dropping water or chemicals? As bitchin' as it sounds, they aren't trying to kill a fire by bombing it to death. They're just trying to buy the folks on the ground some time so they can light most of the landscape on fire before the real fire gets there.
Oh, fire, is there any problem you can't solve?
See, a fire needs three things to keep expanding -- heat, oxygen, and fuel. Deny a fire any one of those things and it stops. What's the best way to get rid of fuel? Use it up. It's the wildland firefighter's job to set off many smaller fires in the path of the main blaze to create a barren fire-wasteland. We do have awesome arsonist porn like drip torches and flare guns (yes, some of us get to be literal firemen), but mostly we use chainsaws and other hand tools to remove fuel sources and dig lines so the fire can't spread as easily. Then we clear the area behind our friendly fire so it can't come back at us and set it off to go meet with the enemy fire. They have sloppy drunken flame sex, merge ... and then realize they've both been cut off from their fuel.
Don't worry about it, Abstract Concept of Fire: Lust makes fools of us all.
Fire has a lot of problems with impulse control.
Convicts Will Be Your Co-Workers
Imagine yourself hiking in the woods when you round a corner and spot a prisoner ahead. What's the one thing you want him to be holding the least? A firearm? His wang? Your mother's face? Your wang? Well, pretty high up on that list is probably stuff like chainsaws, flare guns, and drip torches. But that's exactly what you might see: Most prison industry duty is simple stuff like making license plates, but sometimes it means fighting wildfires with tools that can easily do major bodily harm. Luckily for your mom and your wang (your mom's wang?!), not every convict can join a crew, just the nonviolent offenders.
What a reality series that would have been.
Don't worry: The prison system isn't cruelly sending all the white-collar criminals off to burn in the woods -- these cons actually work as volunteers, and not "volunteers." They willingly go out for fire duty because a few weeks breathing fresh (OK, ash-choked) air in the romantic California wilderness (it may be on fire, but doesn't that only lend to its romance?) sure beats picking up needles in the yard. While professional and convict crews are separate, we do encounter each other: We had some convicts come and bum smokes from us, which we actually got in trouble for (firefighting prisoners are apparently like squirrels, and giving them what they want will only teach them to rely on you for cigarettes instead of foraging for them on their own, as nature intended).
I'm torn on how I feel about the whole thing. It's good that they're getting job experience, living in better conditions than prison, and contributing to the society they once harmed, but these guys are also making $1 an hour. The only reason they're out there is the love for cheap labor, and sometimes they're taking the positions of actual wildland firefighters. We can't compete for $1 an hour wages, and we shouldn't have to, since our job qualifications aren't "got caught embezzling" and "had a shitty lawyer."
Or "was a shitty lawyer."
The Living Conditions Are Terrible
Your normal city-based firefighters operate on a 24-hour shift. This means a full day in the fire department: living, eating, sleeping, and basically being on call at all times should some sexy coed's kitten get caught up a tree (or a tenement burst into flames, which is honestly more likely, but hey -- we all dream). Then they're off for two days or so before taking another shift. Wildland firefighters have it just a liiiittle bit rougher.
We don't even get tricycles.
Out battling a wildfire, you are on a 16-hour shift, which sure beats the 24 straight hours of a city firefighter. Except wildland firefighters don't get the next day off. You get eight hours of total downtime to eat and sleep, and that means camping ... in the path of an inferno. We sleep far enough away from the fires to not be at immediate risk of death, but close enough that you can usually see the faint glow ahead. The only thing missing from the full camping experience is a tent, because you're not taking 20 minutes out of your precious sleep/eat/poop time to bother with that. You've got a sleeping bag, and if that's not enough for Fancy Lord Fauntleroy, maybe he shouldn't be fighting fires in the damn woods.
When battling a wildfire, showers and running water are nonexistent. The middle of the forest is notoriously lax in providing amenities. If you spend a few days digging around dirt and ash, you get pretty filthy. They might have some hand washing stations and port-a-potties, but that's about as good as it gets. Most of the time us romantic firefighter types are out there with tiny shovels digging our own poo-holes.
Burrito night necessitates more serious tools.
By regulation, you can only be on a fire for 14 days until you have to take a two-day break, but for really bad fires, it can be extended for another week. That means you might spend most of a month constantly firefighting, then get a mere two days to recuperate. When somebody asks how your month has been, you can honestly answer "on fire."
You Might Get Killed, Just Not the Way You'd Expect
Obviously, fighting wildfires is a dangerous job -- there's only so long you can dance with Lady Fire before she decides to take you home. It's like old fishermen and the sea. You work this job long enough and you just know how you're going to die. That's right: in a vehicle accident, or maybe from a heart attack. Fire and injuries from firefighting rank third, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen: Just trying to fight a fire can be deadly. We cut down dead, damaged, and burning trees all the time. And on those trees? Widowmakers -- limbs that broke off long ago and became stuck in lower branches. They're hard to spot and aren't actually attached to the tree, so they fall unexpectedly as soon as you start chopping.
"Hide your wedding rings, guys. It knows."
There was one time we called in a helicopter water drop and the pilot completely missed. He dropped about 40 feet above the treeline, so the water split up as it fell. It sprinkled gently across the trees and didn't do anything to the fire except possibly provide it with a refreshing mist. The guy calling in the drop got on the radio and said, "That was probably the worst drop I've ever seen." We laughed about it, but only because we didn't die from it. Those drops are dangerous. You have to get close enough to point out exactly where you need the drop, but not get so close that the drop lands on you. It would be just your luck to be the one guy who drowns in a wildfire.
And that's not to mention the houses: Houses are deathtraps in a fire. That's why we don't mention the houses -- seriously, the proper procedure is to pretty much ignore them. We let houses burn down. We understand how important they are to people, and we'll try to stop them from catching fire in the first place, but once they go up, we're not going to risk our lives to save them. We don't even know how -- we're not structural firefighters. That's a totally separate thing. If you're out in your driveway watching your house burn down and you yell to the passing wildland firefighter, demanding to know what he's going to do about it -- he's wondering the same thing. Turn on the hose? Clap? Pray? It's a different story if there are occupants inside, of course, but if it comes down to saving your house and letting the fire advance or losing it and controlling the burn, we always choose the latter.
If this house didn't want to be on fire, it should've been a goddamn submarine.
You Might Encounter a Firenado
More commonly known as fire whirls, a firenado is exactly what it sounds like: a fire tornado. And a fire tornado is exactly what it sounds like, which is fucking terrifying. You just try to keep your cool when a fire tornado comes at you -- and they do come at you. I even had to run from one. There was a dust devil on the other side of the fire from us while we were out in Colorado. That's harmless. Then it hit the fire and sucked up the flames, and suddenly there was a 40-foot tornado of burning coming right at us.
On the plus side, regular tornadoes aren't that scary anymore.
Somebody yelled "safety zone!" and we all ran like hell. Except for my boss, who shouted frantically at one of the guys closest to him. "Will! Freeze!" he screamed. Will turned toward him, scared out of his mind, expecting to see a firenado towering over him like the Balrog, and that's when my boss ... took a picture.
Because there's always time for a legendary Facebook photo, even when two different elemental forces have actively allied to seek your destruction.
Even nature's big swingin' firedick isn't as mighty as simple human narcissism.
When Drew isn't fighting wildfires, he does stand-up comedy, and he has a full special online for free.
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