The next day at Big Bend National Park comes, and we continue cutting and hauling brush in the extreme heat. The temperature exceeded 100 degrees several times. After a couple of days of swamping, I began to get the hang of it. I found a steady pace that I could keep up throughout the day. We shaded up and hydrated at appropriate times. I also made sure to snack to maintain my energy level. Then it happened! After several days of project work, we received an order to assist at the Wallow Fire in Arizona. My first fire!? I hoped it would be! We demobilized from Big Bend N.P., and we were on our way to the Wallow.
Because of the long drive, we stayed in a hotel in Las Cruces, NM, which was nice after being in that hot environment. The next morning I woke up, got dressed, and grabbed a bag so that I could get ice in the coolers. We headed out on the road, drove throughout the day, and arrived early that evening. Pulling into town, I got the sense that this was all going to be fast moving. There were engines everywhere I looked. At the time, the town was being evacuated. Police and residents were everywhere, driving like maniacs. I did feel a bit nervous. It was a very large fire, and it was getting dark and very smoky. And, did I mention that this was my first fire! Pulling into the incident command post was like going to a big concert, semis parked everywhere. Huge lights were set up to guide incoming resources. It was a much larger operation than I ever could have imagined.
Well, Paul goes to check the crew in and receive assignments. At this point, I'm getting overwhelmed because things are happening so fast. I felt I was the only one who didn't know what to do. After about 30 minutes waiting at the rigs, a voice comes over the radio. It's Paul telling us where to take the rigs and stage until further instruction.
The sky was dark red/orange, very smoky. We waited, safely, in a parking lot, staged and waiting for orders from Paul. Turned out we were going to start out on the night shift. We tried to get a little sleep in the rigs while waiting for shift to begin. Of course, after finding out I was going to be fighting my first fire in the dark, I didn't sleep at all! I was too anxious. After a couple of hours, Paul briefed us on the plan, and we prepared to engage.
Driving through town, things began to get hectic. The fire was getting closer to a lot of homes, and police were trying to get people out. The air filled with more and more smoke. I was getting even more nervous. It was getting darker, smokier. We were assigned to structure protection. We were going to try to prevent fire spread and save as many homes as possible. Paul staged us at a gas station parking lot, in a safe place, while he and the two captains scouted the area and gathered intelligence. I remember thinking: Watchout Situation Number Two: In Country Not Seen In Daylight. Getting nervous. Paul staged us there because it was too unsafe with all of the traffic flying in and out of the subdivision. He wanted to ensure that it was safe to engage the crew. He wanted to improve his picture of the situation, heighten his, and thus the crew's, awareness before blindly engaging.
About an hour passed by, and I could see the fire spreading closer and closer. Fire behavior was erratic, and it was amazing how powerful it was! I was watching, when all of the sudden Paul came back, briefed the crew, then brought us in to engage the fire! It was time to work!
We pulled into this dirt turnoff, and stopped. This is the moment I had always wanted, and here it was. Captain knocks on the door, says "Gear Up!" Everyone rolls out of the rig, and things move like clockwork. We all go to our jobs, someone unloads packs. Sawyers get their saws. Pull Siggs. Get tools. "Rafael, take the backpack pump."
The backpack pump weighed 45 pounds, and it was on my shoulders, over my normal fire pack, which weighed about 40 pounds. With my tool in hand, I was walking into my first fire with 90 pounds extra weight. I told myself to pay attention, do what you've been taught. Keep your head on straight. Smoke everywhere. It seemed like fire was all around us. Overhead briefed us on our assignment.
We headed out in a perfect line and began constructing fireline around a two-acre fire that was threatening to reach a group of structures. We were notified of our escape routes and our safety zones as we hiked in. After reaching the fire's edge, I looked around to take it all in. There were orange flames only two feet away, burning stumps everywhere. We were told to split into two squads and flank the fire from both directions. I was told to spray "hotspots" with the pump. I pulled the pump handle, sparing as much water as possible: Ssssssss. Steam and smoke rising. We continue to work the line until the two squads tie into one another. Later that evening, I got to dig line for the first time! It felt so good, after all of the training, to finally swing a Pulaski. It also felt great stopping that little bit of fire from reaching the structures.
Around one o'clock in the morning, I got an opportunity to rest a bit. Minutes later, I was told to gear up, head down the line, and tie in with my captain. I walked down the line, tired but still excited, and tie in with my captain. He asks me to look at the fire activity and tell him what I see. I told him, based on the limited experience I had that night, along with anything I could remember from training and books, about the fire behavior I saw and how I interpreted the night's events. I learned a lot talking to Mark about what the fire actually was doing, about safety concerns, about why we did the things we did that night, and about a lot of other things I might've forgotten during all of the excitement. He sent me back to the buggies, and I fell asleep. I woke up a short while later to a Sikorsky helicopter flying overhead.
Throughout our time on the Wallow Fire, we carried out all kinds of operations. One big moment was when I got to participate in a burnout operation and carry a drip torch for the first time. I was nervous because here we were trying to fight a fire, but I'm standing there with a lit torch in my hand about to put fire on the ground.
A couple of days previous, I was part of the holding forces, and I watched burners to see how they handled the torch and dripped fuel. But now, it was my turn. At first, I was a bit sloppy, using too much fuel, not moving fast enough. But by the end of my first burn, I was a lot more comfortable. I learned that communication was critical, because all of our safety depended on perfect coordination. Just when I thought things couldn't get any more intense, Paul drives over and calls me to his truck. He proceeded to teach me how to use the .22 revolver to fire flares into the burn to achieve depth. Paul explained how it all worked. He taught me about all of the safety aspects of using firing devices, how to handle the flare gun, how to load the blanks, how to load the flares. Yell: "Firing!" It was amazing. I had only read about these things. We burned all night long.
My next fire was the Ducket Fire, west of Pueblo, Colorado. This assignment was physically intense from the start. The hiking was long and steep, and the work involved long days, burning and holding burnouts late into the evening.
Dozers pushed line ahead of us while we, alongside other hand crews, prepped the edge, limbing and thinning trees.
The work was fast and arduous, and again, I needed to focus and find a pace that I could maintain throughout the day.
At one point, I was pulled aside and given a brief field refresher on taking weather. One of my mentors stayed with me a few times until I felt comfortable, then I was given the task of taking and reading the weather, on my own. It was my responsibility now. So, every hour, I needed to bump out, find a shaded location away from the smoke and fire, and take my weather readings. After compiling my measurements, I had to track down a crewmember with a radio, broadcast the weather to the entire crew, then broadcast the weather to all of the resources in our division. I kept working, bumping out, taking weather, bumping back in, reading weather, and repeating.
Then, wind and fire behavior picked up. Suddenly, we were getting spot fires everywhere outside the control line, single engine air tankers and helicopters were everywhere, dropping slurry solutions and water, surveying fire spread from above, and relaying intelligence back to the ground. I was looking up constantly, because I was told in training and out here in the field to always look up when aircraft is approaching or flying over head. All of us finally were told by crew overhead to bump out of the green and get back to the control line. Too many spots were popping up, and it was getting unsafe to continue chasing them. We moved out to safety and waited for new orders. I recognized, quickly, that this was one of those times I needed to think clearly, pay attention, and not miss any instructions. I listened as resources were being moved around, as the wind howled and the fire ripped through the tree crowns, as Paul coordinated over the radio with air ops for bucket drops. The complexity seemed overwhelming to me. Suddenly, just when I thought things couldn't get more complex, a medical emergency came over the radio. Someone from another crew got hurt while attempting to control a spot fire. I couldn't believe how fast things happened, how fast things changed. This chaos went on for about an hour before things calmed down and resources got a handle on the spots.
I realized during that time just how much I still had to learn, and how much time I needed to spend in this job to truly understand what I was seeing. We constantly are reminded that if we do not pay attention and focus, if we let our guard down, that is when accidents happen.
Sitting in the buggy, I heard the urgency on the radios, and I watched how fast fire managers engaged other crews on seemingly uncontrollable spot fires, and I thought of the things I'd learned about being too mission driven. I thought of the concept of taking tactical pauses to gather situational awareness and intel. I understood why we sat and waited for overhead to develop a good plan. The safety and proficiency of the crew, as well as the adherence to fireline objectives and expectations, all often depend on timely tactical pause. Sure, the fire needed to be dealt with, but safety was as always our number-one priority.
Mill Gulch Fire
This fire, started by lightning, was west of Pueblo, Colorado. Our crew responded to initial attack, and it was one of the most fast-paced fires I had been on.
We were one of the first resources on site, along with eight smokejumpers. Driving up to the scene, I looked out of the window and saw a SEAT (Single Engine Air Tanker) on its final approach. I was excited, because air resources add a whole new complexity to the fire. I knew I had to be aware, because the airtanker planned to drop no matter what. I felt that even if we were in the way, they'd drop their slurry. The plane came in on approach and all of the sudden a trail of red liquid erupted from the bottom of the plane. We were right there, the closest I had been to a SEAT drop!
After the SEAT finished the drop, we pulled into where we were going to engage on the fire. I stepped out, looked around, and noticed there was still lightning in the air (We constantly have to pay attention to changes in the weather). It was far enough away to safely work out in the open, so the Incident Commander gave us our assignment, and we got to it.
I jumped out of the buggy, headed to the back of the truck, and started helping with packs. I lined them up behind the truck, then walked to the passenger side, pulled out two Sigg bottles (one gas, one bar oil), and loaded them into the side of my pack. Everyone is responsible for loading Siggs into their own packs. If you forget, the crew may not have enough fuel to make it through a long shift. I threw on my forty-five pound pack, tightened the waist belt, and picked up my Super P (a modified Pulaski with a wider grub end). When I first started this routine, it was completely new to me, and it seemed hectic because I didn't know what to do. But now I have more experience, and it has become almost second nature to me.
After gearing up, the crew lined out and headed off to engage the fire. We walked about one-hundred yards to the location where the jumpers had started digging their line. Bravo, the squad I am on, took the east flank, Alpha took the west flank (again, I begin to question myself, unsure if I am up to the task), and we began to dig line. Back and forearms a little tight, I started off slow, but then I quickly found that pace I spoke of earlier, and my muscles began to loosen up (One thing to remember is that even though we are digging into the earth/cutting trees/trying to contain the fire and minimize spread, we also are trying to minimize our impact on land and resources. It's all tied into being professional and adhering to our firefighter core values of Duty, Respect, and Integrity. It is our duty to remain safe and protect the resources and land around us, but we also need to respect ourselves, our work, and other crews we work alongside).
With lightning comes rain. Well, not always, I guess. But, this time there was rain! About ten minutes into our line construction, it began to downpour. Soon, I was completely drenched, but I knew we had to keep digging. The taste of salt and water hit my lips as we continued around the perimeter of the fire. The digging got easier, but it was still uncomfortable. We see Alpha squad ahead and know we have almost reached the goal of containing the fire. Finally, we tied into Alpha squad's line. It still was downpouring, so our captain told us to find shelter under a tree. We were soaking wet, and I was relieved to be out of the rain, but within five minutes, the rain stopped. We all moved to the sun to dry out. Again, things change so fast. One moment we're fighting a fire, digging line in the rain, and the next we're mopping up (all within an hour or two). Because the rain soaked the ground, we utilized the moisture to begin mop up, putting out hotspots (This can be a tedious job at times).
That night, we began the task of setting up brand new group tarps, each of which would provide shelter for about six people. Setup was a challenge, at first (How many hotshots does it take to put up a tarp?), but after working together we finally managed to set it up.
Then, I pulled the PG (personal gear) bags from the back of the truck, grabbed my bag (number 7), and walked to the tarp to set up my bed. That night, I fell sound asleep. Around midnight, I felt something poking me. It was my squad boss waking me up to tell me that I was snoring loudly (As I mentioned before, sleep means everything to the crew. I am usually not a snorer, but I think the smoke had affected my sinuses). Well, in response, I acknowledged, and then I promptly fell back to sleep. I found out in the morning that I had been snoring like a freight train all night long. The snoring was so loud that even Tom, who had his ears covered, couldn't sleep. Other crewmembers said that they wanted to throw boots at me to wake me up. I was pretty embarrassed and frustrated with myself because, again, it is not normal for me to snore, and I know it is important for my crew to get their sleep. I wasn't sure how to stop my snoring, but I apologized, and from then on I was put with the other snorer in hotel rooms.
After an evening of restful sleep (at least for me), our captain approached the squad. He told us that our line construction was too slow, and that we needed to increase our production. It was frustrating hearing that my squad was not producing up to standards. Sometimes it is hard to receive negative feedback, but I know that everything is a learning experience. And if I listen and understand the feedback, I might be able to fix the problem. I realized that my squad needed to move faster, and I, personally, decided that I was going to push myself harder. I found it challenging to make these changes, but for efficiency, we needed to step it up. Being individual members of a squad, we all have to carry our own weight in order to make the squad stronger and functional. We all feed off of each other's energy. Therefore, if someone ahead of me is pushing and striving to be the best, it makes me want to be at that same level. It is the ripple effect.
I am learning that I always need to strive to be better. Even when I think I am doing my best, I know I can push farther. Sometimes in my life I have settled for less. But on this crew I am constantly reminded of teamwork, the importance of communication, and the necessity and reward of holding high work standards.
Recently I was asked "If this was your last day, and you were never going to return to the hotshots or fire, what would you tell your kids were your greatest experiences and lessons?"
This was a hard question to answer because there are so many things that I have learned and experienced in this short amount of time. However, upon reflection, I realized that one of the main lessons I have learned is the importance of earning the respect of others. During my time on the crew, I learned very quickly that things are earned, not given to you, and the hardest thing to earn is respect. When we've stopped en route to assignment or driven through towns, I have seen others give the crew respect. People greet us, thank us, and wish us well. I've seen other crews give us respect by thanking us for the work we've done, or by deferring to our judgement, operationally, at times. I've seen the respect that all of my crewmembers give the squad bosses, captains, and Paul, acknowledging the history and experience behind the decisions they make. I've seen that from early on, I wanted to be worthy of my crew's respect. Being a rookie on the crew meant that I had to prove to the other guys that I was worthy of being on their team, and I struggled with this throughout the season. I wanted to be a member of the Alpine Hotshot Crew because I wanted to challenge myself, and I wanted to prove that I was worthy of wearing the Alpine logo on my chest, earned, not given. I learned that all of these things require tireless effort and persistence.