A Day on the Fireline
By Aidan Grundy-Reiner, SB Staffer & Wildland Firefighter
Crew lined out hiking between work sites on the Henry Fire in the Stanislaus NF Carson-Iceberg Wilderness. We line out and hike in tool order, saws in front, everyone else lined up behind. We were flown in to this fire by helicopter and spent two weeks in the wilderness living off MREs - except for the one night they flew KFC in!
A DAY ON THE FIRELINE
A quick note: Every day on every fire is different. Sometimes we work days, sometimes through the night, and the schedule is invariably unpredictable. Described is an ~average~ day for our 20-person handcrew on a 14-day “roll”.
The day begins with a cacophony of alarm clocks. All 20 of us sleep within earshot, but nobody wants to be the one who slept through wakeup, so we all set them. Crew members sit up in their sleeping bags, stretching, groaning a little as sore muscles come back online. Camp breakdown is fast.
Wake-up on the Salt Fire in the Shasta-Trinity NF. (Featuring Big Agnes sleeping bag and Thermarest pad!)
We sleep out under the stars (or smoke) and our camping + all our personal gear is limited to one medium-size bag, no more than 30lbs total, so we’re ready to go in no time flat. After staggering to the coffeepot, people break out for their morning chores. If we’re on a major fire with food provided, some grab breakfasts and lunches for the crew, otherwise we throw military MREs in our packs for the day ahead. Others clean truck windows, go over personal packs, check the chainsaws are sharp and in working order, the list goes on...
After chores are done we devour breakfast while the crew overhead (the folks in charge) head to the morning briefing for that particular fire. They get updates from the night shift, learn about overall containment progress, and get the crew’s assignment for the day. At briefing’s end we get back together, learn what we will be doing that day, and hit the road.
Depending on the fire, we typically have a bit of a commute to get to the day’s work site. Sometimes that takes the form of hiking up a mountain to pick up work where we left off, sometimes that means driving steep, winding, single-lane dirt roads deep into the forest. Usually it’s a little bit of both.
Small crew hiking back to camp on the Henry Fire in the Stanislaus NF Carson-Iceberg Wilderness after patrolling a section of line. The fire was very spotty and non-continuous through this rocky stretch, making it hard to clearly define an edge to patrol.
Once we get to our destination packs go on and we get to work. Every day is different. It is not at all uncommon to start the day doing one thing and by day’s end you’re in a different place entirely doing something else entirely - whatever is needed for that particular fire. Fundamentally though, our goal and the goal of all the resources on the fire is almost always to contain the fire by putting a fireline around it - a fuel break that the fire cannot burn across. In some way or form all of our tasks are contributing to this goal. Sometimes this means we are cutting hot line with chainsaws and hand tools, the fire’s edge just steps away, other times we are prepping roads or bulldozer tracks to function as barriers when the fire arrives eventually - a technique known as “big boxing”. These lines can also be used to set controlled fires off of and create an even stronger barrier to the approaching fire - “cold black” - already burned sections that will stop the fire’s spread.
It is hot, hard, dirty work. Our packs start the day weighing between 30 and 40 pounds, and with the weight of a chainsaw or an extra water jug one can easily end up carrying 60 or more pounds - all across rough, ridiculously steep terrain. It is normal to burn 5000 or more calories in a day. We hydrate nonstop, often multiple gallons per day, and still barely replace the amount we sweat out. We often do not have showers for the entirety of a 14-day roll, and are lucky if a river spot presents itself. We get blisters, burns, and beestings. What keeps us all going through the hardships is the team. Living and working with the crew for every second of every day forms bonds and friendships that sustain us through the hardest days, and while we all sometimes get frustrated with each other (especially on day 12 or so), we get through it together.
Once there is line around the whole fire, the goal becomes holding that line. Working alongside other resources, we patrol the line for any fire trying to cross it and work to extinguish heat sources that could present a problem. The whole process described can take weeks or even months for large or hard to access fires.
As the sun starts to go down we call it a day, making our way back to our trucks and to camp. We fill our water and saw fuel bottles, refurbish tools, and get everything ready for the next day’s work. Dinner comes and goes, sleeping bags and pads are rolled out for our 10:00 lights out, and we bed down for the night, ready to get up and do it all again the next day.
Air conditioned yurts on the Cronan Fire (River Complex) in the Klamath NF make sleeping during the day and working during the night much easier for the crew.
Rob J says...
Thanks for what you do, Aidan! We’d love to hear more. We know your busy out there, but if you’re keeping anything like a log/journal, and taking some pics, it would be awesome to read your accounts and see more pics. We can wait til the end of fire season, though, of course. Be safe out there!On August 30, 2021