Around you are smoking ruins, destruction at every point of the compass. Tall structures, blackened and weak, teeter and fall with little warning. Amid the ruins, a band of brothers, and occasionally sisters, uniforms soiled, attending to tasks, exhausted, faces grimed with soot and smoke, one or two staring off into the middle distance. Medics confer. Food is available, but pared to its essentials in the field in their pockets, beef jerky and protein bars; in emergency packs, military Meals Ready to Eat.
Sounds like a war zone and, in a way, it is. Wildfire is a formidable force to be humbled. Though wildfire is not armed, it is very dangerous and aggressive, leaving disaster in its wake. The forces fighting it, with medics alongside, do battle with specialized implements and sophisticated vehicles, including aircraft. Base camps are built and campaigns waged. Officers give orders and the rank and file are debriefed.
Firefighting is para-military, but without the dangers of weapons and actual enemies, said firefighter and paramedic Matt Menard of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District. Like soldiers, firefighters go into battle with weather reports, scenario analyses, action plans, radios and eyes in the sky, he said, but there's one big difference: fire is not a conscious opponent trying to kill you.
"I'd say the risk is more manageable," Mr. Menard said. And if a wildfire gets really bad, firefighters don't head in, he said. They back away. "You're not going to beat Mother Nature," he said.
War-fighters can experience post-traumatic stress, but it's rare among firefighters, Mr. Menard said. "When we come back from these fires, the transition back to normal life is very simple," he said. He was out for 22 days at the Gasquet Complex fire in Del Norte County. "I got home and it was like, "I'm back,'" he said.
Javier Valdes, a firefighter and paramedic with the Woodside Fire Protection District, agrees. He was gone for 14 days to the Mad River Complex fire in Trinity County. When he returned home, he had a 36-hour break before reporting back to Woodside. He had no need to wind down, he said. He was with his wife and two children, spent a day washing his uniforms, then it was back to normal routines.
Fighting a wildland fire is not a new or unusual experience, Mr. Valdes said, given that in the Woodside fire district, so much of the developed land is adjacent to forested land. Fighting a complex wildfire "is just a different part of my job," he said, though he added that he does go into a wildfire situation with more awareness of things that can kill him, falling trees being the principal threat.
If you're a Peninsula firefighter and your name comes up in the rotation for your agency, chances are you'll travel to the fire in an official vehicle.
Mr. Valdes was part of a 22-member strike team. With an officer and a trainee in an official SUV and five engines from Woodside, Redwood City, Menlo Park, San Carlos and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection a convoy left the main fire station in Woodside on Friday, July 31, and arrived in Trinity County eight hours later, around midnight, at a high school serving as the staging area.
They went to bed and were up at 5 a.m. to get the day's assignment: protecting houses, Mr. Valdes said. Their shifts were defined as 12 hours on and 12 off, but in reality they were 16 on and 8 off, he said. His choice at the end of day usually boiled down to dinner or bed.
He favored a shower and bed, he said, adding that he didn't eat much. Among the other exigencies of his job: blisters, bumps, bruises and a sore back. At one point, the soles of his boots came off. A combination of heated ground and constant use left them no time to recover. He kept them together with tape, he said.
Mr. Valdes, 48, is a firefighter/paramedic in his 17th year with the Woodside district. He lives in Fairfield with his wife and two children. The Mad River Complex was his fourth career wildland deployment. To stay in shape, he said he tries to eat well and get enough exercise, which includes ju jitsu and ice hockey.
He chose a firefighting career after an incident while driving along Interstate 280 with his dad, a landscaper. They saw firefighters working a grass fire and noticed a fire they weren't attending to. He and his dad grabbed shovels and put it out, and he decided that he liked it. "I got (to the Woodside district) and I'm very happy with my career choice," he said.
Mr. Menard, 42 and a fire-line EMT, lives in Petaluma and has a girlfriend with an 8-year-old daughter. He started out as a river guide, with ski patrol in the winter. He had already had paramedic training and was teaching at a river-guide school when a student recommended a career as a firefighter. "You can't be a river guide forever," he recalled the student saying."You need a career."
To get to Del Norte County, Mr. Menard drove a rented Ford Taurus. Firefighters traveling alone or with a colleague try to rent four-wheel drive SUVs, allowing them to commute to the fire from base camp, Mr. Menard said. But as a medical team leader who stays in base camp his first time in that role, he said he didn't need an off-road vehicle.
He worked a 24-hour shift, the rule when fighting a fire in a state forest. The 12-on, 12-off shifts are for federal forest fires.
There's a thrill in approaching a wildfire, starting with a "gigantic" column of smoke. "You just get that feeling. 'Wow. This is incredible. I'm going toward this monster column of smoke. This is my job,'" he said. "It's really exciting."
"You're out there protecting your own guys," he added."I'm there for those guys. If one of those guys gets hurt, I'm going to take damn good care of him. That's an awesome feeling."
Medics at base camp set up a tent, echoing a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH), he said. Inside are cots, a table, medical supplies, an office and a computer.
Among the conditions they treat: colds and coughs, allergies, blisters, poison oak, and knee and back pain. Next in terms of seriousness are exhaustion, over-exertion and dehydration, followed by fractures, strains and sprains, then minor burns and then major injuries. The biggest hazards are dead trees (called snags) falling and crushing firefighters.
Injured firefighters tend to be helicoptered out to hospitals, sometimes even for minor injuries, Mr. Menard said.
He has worked on helicopters, and the presence of drones in the airspace "is driving me nuts," he said. The firefighting air war takes place at different altitudes so various aircraft can operate safely, he said. "Now you've got these bozos up there flying their personal drones," he said. "The drone opens up Pandora's box for a ton of problems. I get steam coming out of my ears."
Fires in state forests are also distinguished by the presence of inmates from state prisons.
They're under "very, very, very strict discipline," Mr. Menard said. "This is a privilege for them," he said, "For the most part, they're very well behaved. These are guys that want to be out there. They love doing it."
"They work hard," Mr. Valdes said of inmates. "They bust their butts."
Benefits include better food and an absence of the violence that can go on in prison, he said. Inmates are exposed to the same possibility of injury as regular firefighters, but certain medications are off the table. NyQuil, for example, which contains alcohol. They're also not allowed tobacco products.
Con crews, as they're called, are well respected, Menlo Park district Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said. "It's an opportunity to give back and do very difficult work," he said. "It's not lost on anybody that these guys are trying to pay something back to society, and that's a good thing."