Life as a California Wildland Firefighter


More than 5,000 firefighters are battling the King wildland fire in northern California, burning out of control near the community of Pollock Pines, about 60 miles east of Sacramento. The blaze, which began one week ago, has grown to more than 128 square miles, 82,000 acres, making it the second largest wildfire in a state that has spent much of the summer burning. The King fire is only 10 percent contained, making it the biggest threat at this time. Firefighters are working around the clock to try to get the blaze controlled. Thirty-two structures have been destroyed in the fire, including 10 residences. More than 2,800 people have been evacuated.

Garrett Balen, one of those firefighters, says the crews are working 16-hour days, fighting tinder-dry and windy conditions. He says during the night the winds die somewhat and the fire “lays down” and is manageable, so extensive work is done then to cut fire lines and back burn. Once the sun comes up the fire starts to run again. The weather is expected to get hotter and drier through Thursday.

CaliforniaIt is anticipated that today’s spread will be minimal as higher humidity moderates dry conditions. There is still a potential for erratic fire behavior if thunderstorms come in bringing wind.  According to fire spokesman Mike McMillian, the main fuel burning is tall timber, making it difficult for a direct attack. Crews are setting backfires and cutting brush and trees that are potential fuel, to prepare lines for bulldozers. California wildland firefighters are being helped by crews from as far away as Alaska and Florida.

During the day, sawyers cut brush and trees, which are known as swamp. At night a swampers crew throws the cut materials into the green, with the large pieces moved by bulldozer, and set backfires. Balen said that the first night he was there he swamped from 10 p.m. to 6:45 a.m., moving cut material and burning fire lines. He says prepping for burning backfires is extremely hard work, but they cannot burn during the day due to heat and wind, so fire lines are cut during the day and swamping and burning must be done at night. Temperatures are in the low 60s in the fire’s southern area, and 50s in the northern portion.

CaliforniaFood and breaks are both scarce, as are creature comforts. A chow hall serves breakfast and dinner and packs sack lunches to eat on the line. Power bars are a major food group. On many fires the crews, once they get to sleep, simply throw their bedrolls in the dirt wherever they happen to drop with exhaustion. They are sleeping on the ground again for the King fire, but this time they are treated to a large air-conditioned tent since many are sleeping during the day.

Dangerous conditions exist for the firefighters, state fire Battalion Chief Scott McLean said earlier today. Concerns include falling timbers, hot spots, and hazardous trees. Wind is gusting at up to 30 mph. About 21,000 structures remained threatened, including a University of California, Berkeley research station that does experiments on plants, trees and wildlife. The fire has spread into the Tahoe National Forest as well. Air resources are being used in addition to ground crews to slow the spread of the fire and assist in structure protection.

Another wildfire in the town of Weed near the California-Oregon border was fully contained on Saturday. That fire destroyed 143 homes and burned 479 acres. Another wildfire near Yosemite National Park that destroyed 37 homes is now 93 percent contained.

By Beth A. Balen


Personal Interview, Garrett Balen
ABC News
USA Today

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