Recently returned from battling blazes in Northern California, La Jolla firefighter-paramedic Steve Langenfeld, who operates out of Fire Station 37 in Scripps Ranch, reflected back on the experience, recalling the danger, the long hours, the spartan conditions and the uncertainty of a rapidly changing situation.
Just as in the military, when a firefighter receives the call - they report for duty.
There are several types of strike teams employed in emergency firefighting situations, most of which are built around different types of fire engines. Generally strike teams consist of teams of about 21 or 22 personnel manning five light apparatus. Those strike teams are directed by an incident commander, who visits a fire scene, assesses the need for personnel and equipment, and decides how and where to allocate resources.
“Our strike team got called June 22nd and we only had minutes to gather our things and we met in Escondido at Westfield Shopping Center, our rendezvous point,” Langenfeld said. “We were dispatched to Riverside, our staging area in Southern California, then we drove 15 hours to the Brown fire near Hollister, going up a lot of back roads with single lanes.”
Little did Langenfeld realize that his strike team would be ping-ponging around the state. “I was on a Type 3 strike team,” he said. “We had five brush engines with four personnel on each.”
By the time his strike team made it up to Hollister, the Brown fire was well under control. “It was mostly a grass fire that burned quickly and there was not a lot of residual heat,” he said.
Then Langenfeld’s strike team was sent to a staging area in Madeira where they stayed the night before being dispatched to Mariposa County to the Oliver Fire at the southwest edge of Yosemite National Park. “We were there for seven days working 24-hour shifts sleeping on the mountain on the fire line,” he said. “We slept in shifts with 22 of us setting up a watch system, with someone always keeping an eye out for flare ups. We slept where the bulldozers had made a line on padding on the open ground: They didn’t want us to get too comfortable. It was difficult. It got a little cool at night. A few of us caught a few winks in the fire engine itself.”
Lagenfeld said his crew mostly was assigned to do mop up. He explained the strategy employed in battling wildfires. “Usually, you use an indirect attack,” he noted. “When the fire front comes, it’s too intense to actually fight with hand lines. So you create fire breaks with bulldozers and hand crews, removing all the fuel for 12-foot widths, basically scraping all the fuel away down to the bare ground so the fire won’t have fuel to burn. Then you usually set a back fire from that fire break. Basically, the fire runs out of fuel to burn. Along with that you have air drops with fire retardant or water that are put near the fire line to slow the fire down.”
Firefighting takes a real toll on personnel. Langenfeld said it’s everything in combination that tends to wear you down after awhile - the long hours, dirty conditions, the difficulty of the terrain. “We were at some high altitudes,” he said, “laying hose lines up steep terrain and working hard and continuously: 12 to 15 hours a day in the heat and smoke and dust.”
Fires can also be “tricky,” said Langenfeld, noting a forest fire will leave a debris ash layer six to 10 inches deep that may outwardly appear safe but really is just masking a great deal of extreme heat underneath. “One firefighter accidentally stepped in one,” said Langenfeld, “and he got second-degree burns on his foot, even though he was wearing heavy leather boots, and had to be transported to the hospital and taken off our strike team.”
Maurice Luque, San Diego Fire-Rescue spokesman, explained how California’s emergency statewide firefighting assistance system works. “We get the word through the state that they need mutual aid assistance,” Luque said, “and we have crews that are next up to go. We have a list (of names) that we work off to send crews out when needed. Typically, they’re working at fire stations with different apparatus that are needed, like brush engines.”
How firefighters who respond to mutual aid calls statewide are paid depends on the location of the fire they’re sent to. If the blaze is on state land, the state pays. If it’s on federal land, the U.S. government picks up the tab.
“They (firefighters) get paid around the clock after they get called until they are released,” said Luque. “The city pays them. Then the city gets reimbursed from the feds or the state for the expense.”
The first day of work battling the blaze near Yosemite, Langenfeld said his team layed nearly 3,000 feet of hose running in-between several brush pumpers. At high altitudes, getting the water to the fire, in itself, is a difficult and time-consuming undertaking. “You lose water pressure due to the elevation and friction in the hose line,” he said. “So you have to relay the water with pumpers every 1,000 to 1,600 feet.
“We were spaced out about three-quarters of a mile across the mountaintop. We drove two hours each way to get up to the mountaintop.”
After 14 days of toil, Langenfeld and his strike team were relieved by a new firefighting crew that had come up from San Diego in a van, taking over their apparatus. Then it was a long ride back home in a passenger van.
There’s no place like home, noted Langenfeld. “Being separated and coming back,” he said, “reminded me of the movie ‘City Slickers,’ where Billy Crystal came back and saw clearly what his priorities were with his family and his job. I got a sense of that after being hidden away. Everyone loves you, even your pets, when you get back. And you just appreciate everything much more after you’ve been separated from it for two weeks.”