YARDWORK IN HELL - Tucson Local Media: Import


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Posted: Tuesday, September 11, 2001 11:00 pm

Stuart Rodeffer's cough sounds like it's weighed down by sludge, similar to the hack of a life-long smoker. His incessant coughing is the result of ingesting smoke and ash every day for nearly a month while fighting wildland fires in Northern California.

"They call it Camp Crud," said Rodeffer, a Northwest Fire/Rescue District firefighter.

All it lacks is the nicotine rush.

But don't let that mislead anyone into thinking this line of work isn't an addiction, Rodeffer said.

For several firefighters in the Northwest Fire District, digging battle lines in a forest to fight fire with fire is as much a compulsion as the motion of a smoker lifting a cigarette to their mouth.

But these firefighters' habits can get them killed 15 minutes after they're hooked.

Those are just some of the harsh physical realities associated with wildland fire fighting, of which even Northwest Fire's Chief Jeff Piechura is an admitted junkie. But as Piechura, and those in the lower ranks have found the past few months, fighting fire outside the district can prove to be a public relations nightmare at home during budget time.

With the passage of a 25 percent property tax increase for the district came questions from residents about how their money and the district's resources are being used. This section of their job seems to stray from NWFD's mission of providing fire and medical coverage to the town of Marana and Flowing Wells community.

The wildland fire program is a web of fire districts from across the western United States used to pull firefighters and equipment to forest and brush fires that the local resources can't put out alone. Northwest Fire is a well respected and popular district in the web, NWFD Battalion Chief Rick Evans said.

"Through this system of national cooperative agreements and such, when (other districts) need resources - and that can be engines, or fire fighters on foot, or aircraft or anything else - they start placing these calls with various agencies. And we have the option to say, 'No, we need to stay here, we need to cover our district. It's real active here right now,'" Evans said. "But if we have enough equipment and people to cover what we need to do at this time of year in the district we can go out on these fires."

And Northwest Fire does respond to several after the first rain of July, when the district's fire season ends, Piechura said. NWFD has made 36 deposits in the wildland fire favor bank this year and has never had to call in outside resources, Piechura said.

But for the guys who head out of state for weeks at a time to stand a few feet from a wall of the wind's weapon of choice, their decision has little to do with politics or appearances. Except those of the land they're trying to save.

"The thing that struck me is the signs down the center of town. Every business, 'Thank you fire fighters,'" Rodeffer said. "I mean you see that stuff and that's kind of neat, but it gets to you every once in a while. We were affecting these people's lives by getting in there and doing what we were doing."

Rodeffer and 11 other NWFD fire fighters returned September 7 from more than 20 days in Alturas, Calif. fighting two wildland fires, sleeping on the hard ground, drinking a lot of water and hiking from trouble spot to trouble spot.

"For being on engines we did a whole bunch of walking," Rodeffer said.

The Devil's Garden

At first, the assignment given to the NWFD fire fighters surprised Rodeffer, the engine boss for the Alturas fire. The ground looked too flat compared to the kind of hiking they'd grown accustomed to with these types of assignments. Then he read the briefing.

The area Rodeffer and his crew were responsible for had an ominous name considering the kind of work these firefighters were going to be doing there.

"It was called 'The Devil's Garden,'" he said.

The ground was thick with chunks of lava rock and had been given its name by a previous owner who'd struggled to use it for agriculture.

Fighting a wildland fire has few similarities with fighting a structure fire. Wildland fires spread out, creating a front line that will keep moving so long as there's fuel in front of it. Fuel is anything that burns from roots buried in the ground, trees, brush, grass or weeds to pine needles on the surface.

"What you've got to do is separate the fire from the fuel," Evans said.

To do that they dig a line in front of the fire where all the potential fuel has been removed, making it more difficult for the fire keep moving. Evans said the size of the "firelines" is determined by the what's in the ground and the atmospheric conditions.

"Your fire line might actually be a trench," he said.

While a majority of the desert's fuel sits on the surface, it was a different story in the Devil's Garden.

"It's a much different environment than what we have here. It's a mixture of juniper and a lot of large full pine and pinion pine," Rodeffer said.

That left layers of compacted pine needles and leaves that have decomposed into mulch, which takes a toll on the tools when digging against lava rock, Rodeffer said. And the fire burning toward them is just the beginning of the worries for wildland fire fighters.

"(A fire) will burn underneath the surface without you knowing about it. You can have an ember start burning deep in the stuff, travel along and just pop out of nowhere," Evans said. "You just have a wildland fire explode on you."

Earlier this year, a wildland fire in Washington was whipped by wind, killing four firefighters and 11 others as the wall of flame overran them.

NWFD has four firefighters to an engine for wildland fires - three to stop the wall of fire from consuming beyond their line and the fourth to let the others know when it already has without notice.

"We had stuff that fired a mile ahead of the (fire's) main body," Rodeffer said.

These offspring of the fire wall, called spot fires, can travel underground or be ignited by burning fuel streaking over the workers' heads like artillery shells after an explosion. When they land on the other side of the fire line, Rodeffer said he and his crew are stuck between two fires.

"We had stuff, I'd say it was probably half-dollar size chunks that were hitting the ground that were still very hot. Some of them were open flame," he said.

When between two fires, in wildland lingo it's called being stuck in a convection column, Rodeffer said. The crew must immediately respond to the spot fire before it spreads and becomes its own wall and the lives of the firefighters are at risk.

"The conditions were very volatile. We had a huge potential for things to go very very poorly. Our first day there we had a spot fire that had five acres run right behind us," the engine boss said. "You don't know where your next problem is going to come from. I mean you can judge the general wind direction but wind, unfortunately, doesn't realize it should stay in one direction for awhile."

Water is used in wildland firefighting, just not much since fire hydrants aren't installed in the woodlands or empty desert, Evans said. Instead, the engines carry 500 gallons of water out to the fire wall, which is normally the only place water is used, Evans said. Most of the time dirt is more readily available to bury the fires in.

"I'd describe it as yardwork in Hell," Rodeffer said. "If you took your barbecue grill, dumped it into your backyard and stood there playing with it with a rake you might get a little taste."

Of course, that would be missing the 50 pound pack, extreme heat, long hours and stress that the firefighters experience.

The request for resources was received by Northwest Fire at 8:30 a.m., August 11. After two days of driving the NWFD crew arrived at the Modoc National Forest, just south of Oregon. The Alturas fire had been started by several hundred lightning strikes and was raging at level five -- the highest fire rating -- when NWFD's crew was called out

"A level five is basically, everybody who can walk, talk and carry a shovel they'll put you to work," the engine boss joked.

The fire was well on its way to consuming 31,000 acres in less than three weeks and everything and everyone who could be scrounged up was being thrown at it, Rodeffer said.

The California Department of Forestry, the U.S. Forest Service, Grand Canyon Fire Service, Central Yavapi, Avra Valley Fire District and NWFD gathered to tame the blaze.

At the same time there were 33 other wildland fires burning in seven Western states, 11 of them were major ones including Alturas. About 26,000 firefighters were working on the wildland blazes.

Alturas is a small farming and logging community whose population was doubled by the presence of 1,500 firefighters and other crew setting camp.

The Alturas fire was important for a number of reasons that had nothing to do with its size, he said. The fire wall had the potential to destroy the entire logging industry in Alturas for a number of years and scorch several archaeological sites important to several Native American tribes.

The NWFD crew was dispatched to block a section of the wall with a fire line and to handle problem spots as they flared up. Infrared sensors were used to find areas where spot fires might ignite. Once the scan is complete, if there are potential sources, hand crews are sent in to eliminate them. Rodeffer's firefighters fit that bill as well.

"You can drop us on a hill and we'll get the job done. They found out real quick they could do the same thing with our engines. They assign us and leave us alone," he said.

Evans said this is usually the conclusion those directing the wildland fires come to about NWFD crews.

"We're out there hiking through the wilderness and humping the hills, but they're prepared to jump. They see a fire half ways up a hill where somebody else's engine might say, 'Well, we need to call aircraft or get a crew' our folks have their packs on board. They throw on their packs, grab the chain saw, the hand tools and start humping that hill," Evans said.

All the 'fun' the NWFD firefighters are having during their nearly 12 hour shift against a moving wall is had without breaks from the scene. They pack enough food and water to last them their entire working day and if they don't bring it one day it's unlikely they'll forget again, Rodeffer said.

The Northwest Fire staff was up every morning at 4:30 a.m. to be packed, fed, briefed and in the field four hours later. They'd spend their daylight stifling the blaze and turn in when the sun touched down on the west.

Rodeffer would turn in his engines' time card, the tools for sharpening, damaged hoses for repair and then himself in for the night. While he and the other firefighters from NWFD were recharging for the next day, the night shift kept the effort going in the dark. The camp doesn't shut down until the fire does.

"(Camp) is a cross between a Persian bazaar, a concentration camp and a circus, I think," Rodeffer said.

On day 24 away from home, Rodeffer and his crew were sent to another wildland fire 16 miles away by Blue Lake. The firefighters are supposed to spend two days at home after a 21 day stretch fighting wildland flames, but the NWFD crew try to stay until they're no longer needed.

However, the engines needed maintenance and Rodeffer said the marriages of some of his firefighters required the same kind of attention.

The Blue fire started to really rage shortly after NWFD packed up and drove home.

Every dime

They're not distinguishable by yellowed teeth or tiny wrinkles at the ends

of their lips like smokers, but these firefighters do have tell-tale signs of their addiction.

Each of them is enormous, with thick necks and chests, large arms and massive thighs. Muscle that was built up hauling heavy packs and heavier equipment up and down steep mountains and canyons.

Kenny Young, who spent five days at the Alturas fire mopping up potential spot fires, has been working part time with NWFD for about a year and already has the bulk.

Last summer Young worked with NWFD on a wildland fire, proved himself and is now testing for full-time status with the district.

Jackie Janton, the only female on the Alturas team but "as good as any man out there," Rodeffer said, was recruited in a similar manner.

The wildland fire program brings in about $370,000 in revenue from the agencies who called them in to the district every year, but it also supplies the district with warm bodies, Piechura said.

"I'd say about 30 to 50 percent (of NWFD's firefighters) have come out of the wildland fire program," he said.

The program helps ensure the district is able to fill its ranks and that those coming in are quality candidates, Evans said.

"When we have one of these young wildland firefighters - even somebody with only two, three years in the fire service - that's seen 1,000 acres of forest in flames, they don't panic when they see the lot at the end of the street burning up," Evans said. "We get the advantage of not hiring somebody cold. We've seen them in the hardest, dirtiest work they'll ever do in their lives."

These late summer gigs also help keep all the firefighters ready for whatever may come their way working within the Northwest Fire District, Evans said. Some high-priced lots - such as those in Canyon Pass that the district is now annexing - have thousands of acres between them and a road that could halt a brush fire.

"The large fires that we'll see within our district are nothing for us to manage," he said." You have to know wildland fire fighting and (the owners of high-priced lots) don't want excuses."

"So when these canyons burn out here we've got people who say, 'Fire out in that road way.' They'll understand exactly what to do and where to light it."

Others said they see the wildland fire program as a multi-faceted investment that has the potential to pay back in staff, revenue and support from other fire districts what Northwest Fire puts out in equipment and firefighters.

"Every dime was earned up there," Rodeffer said.

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