On the Front Lines With the Wildland Firefighters Protecting the West

The new era of wildland firefighting is a war with no end in sight.

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Jonas Smith and his crew drive into the west face of the August Complex Fire in California’s Mendocino National Forest. They’re in Squad 40, a Ford F550 outfitted with a 300-gallon water tank and cache of firefighting tools, including axes, Pulaskis, chainsaws, and portable fire pumps. It’s a specialized vehicle known to firefighters as a Type 6, or “brush truck”.

Smith is the engine boss of a three-man crew of wildland firefighters that are conducting roving operations in search of spot fires. These small flare-ups spread across the forest floor the way paper burns—sharp lines of flame and ember eat their way across virgin material and leave nothing but ash in their wake. Though they start small, spot fires can climb the trunks of trees and quickly engulf the canopy of the forest, turning into an inferno that moves faster than the firefighters’ truck.

The crew of Squad 40 has been out here for days, and it’s getting harder to differentiate time as their 24-hour shifts compound and their workload slowly wears them down. Their mission is to keep these spot fires from growing into something bigger, to hold the western front of the August Complex Fire  and keep it from moving any closer to  nearby towns. Their bodies are covered in a crusty coating of dust, ash, and sweat, and their lungs feel as if they’ve chain-smoked pack after pack of cigarettes. The air is thick with the cremated remains of plants and trees.

Photo: Bloomberg Creative / Getty Images

Most wildfires these days are ignited by manmade sources, but the August Complex Fire was started by a series of lightning strikes on August 16th and 17th, 2020. The strikes birthed fires that eventually merged into a massive inferno that spread across the forests of northern California. The blaze quickly overwhelmed the local resources, so backup teams from across the country joined the effort. As  part of a Western Washington Strike Team, Seattle’s Squad 40 was one out-of-state crew heading the call.

This August day in Northern California is a hot one, and the smoke casts a haze across the forest landscape, rendering the trees imposing and alien. The limited visibility casts a sense of danger. As they drive the dusty mountain roads, Squad 40 notices a spot fire on a steep slope below them. With their Pulaskis, axes, and fire hose in hand, they traverse down to the burning brush.

As the crew gets the spot fire under control, Smith realizes that they might be a bit overextended. Fatigue and heat exhaustion are setting in. His men need a break, and they need to be fully capable of extricating themselves if the fire turns on them. Using the fire hoses as ropes, they climb back up to the brush truck, occasionally slipping on loose dust and ash.

“Mountain climbing and firefighting!”  Smith says, doing his best to keep morale high. “How about we take a break?”

When working long shifts in the field, brief breaks are a luxury, especially when conditions are calm. Smith stands as a lookout while his men dig shallow foxholes in the steep hillside under the shade of unburned trees. These earthen beds are affectionately called coyote camp by the crew. It doesn’t get more primitive than this.

Just 15 minutes pass, and Smith fights his heavy eyelids to keep a constant vigil. Then he hears one of his men yell, “Wolf!”

The three men jump to their feet and take shelter in the brush truck. Directly in front of them a hulking beast of a creature opens its mouth and bellows: “Moooooooooo.”

The wolf is a cow, and everyone has a good laugh at their sleep-deprived squad mate’s expense.

Later that night, Squad 40 fights trees that stand as lone torches in the blackness. Embers fly in clouds overhead, flecked across the night sky like the Milky Way. Any one of these embers could ignite the trees that surround them, setting fire like incendiary rounds in battle. The threat is clear and present. Smith, the designated lookout—from the truck this time—notices what he thinks are headlights in the rearview mirror and wonders why any other firefighters would be coming into their operational area. The beams intensify, and he realizes they are not lights at all, but yet more hot spots that have grown to a raging fire. He calls the crew back to attack the new blaze as it lights up their corner of the forest, forming violent shadows that surround and threaten to overtake them.

Firefighters working a blaze Photo: Seigfred Geil Gregory Caete / EyeEm

The Environmental Protection Agency maintains that “higher temperatures and drought are likely to increase the severity, frequency, and extent of wildfires.” Indeed, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions’ tracking project has shown climate change’s effect on wildfires, causing them to be more frequent, hotter, and more devastating.

In 2020, five of the six largest wildfires on record burned in California. The August Complex Fire became the largest wildfire in documented American history, eventually burning a total of 1,032,648 acres of land—a landmass larger than the state of Rhode Island. It was a firestorm that burned for months, destroy nearly a thousand structures, and cost over $300 million in firefighting efforts.

The science is pretty clear.  One study, titled Impact of Anthropogenic Climate Change across Western US Forests, from the National Academy of Sciences for the United States of America, states, ”human-caused climate change caused over half of the documented increases in fuel aridity since the 1970s and doubled the cumulative forest fire area since 1984.” It is widely expected that the records set during the 2020 fire season will soon be eclipsed.

Photo: Josh Edelson

Patrick McBride sits in the cockpit of a C-130 Hercules, a military cargo plane retrofitted to fight wildfires. He’s a California Air National Guardsman who’s been called from his day job—he’s an American Airlines pilot—as a “surge asset” in this multi-agency response to the August Complex Fire. The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho monitors ongoing fires and communicates with local agencies in order to lead quick federal responses when fires burn beyond the capabilities of regional control. McBride got the call, and his mission today is to follow the lead plane in front of him to targeted areas of the burn, where he will drop 3,000 pounds of what pilots refer to as mud—a red fire retardant called Phos-check LC95A. The pilots take great care to drop the mud in areas free of firefighters on the ground, so they don’t “paint” them red. It is a highly coordinated effort that requires all the agencies in operation to be abreast of every tactic being used at all times. 

In this new age of firefighting, as military planes roar overhead and strike teams fight below, we’re using the methods of battle, not to combat an enemy, but to prevent the mass destruction of our forests and our homes.

Back on the ground, Squad 40 finishes up their shift and makes their way down from the mountains to the nearby town of Ketterpom. Their basecamp is split between the town general store and the local volunteer fire station. They ready their gear for their next mission, head to the showers to wash the soot from their skin, and meander to the fire station where a few townspeople have gathered a cache of supplies for them. As a way of giving thanks for the firefighters’ labors, these appreciative locals have made home-cooked meals that they serve with kind smiles and grateful nods. Through bloodshot eyes showing the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning, the firefighters smile back, thankful for this moment of human connection to the world outside of the fire.

Historically, all firefighters were called smoke eaters because they inhaled the smoke of every fire they fought. Most modern-day firefighters look back on smoke eaters as relics of a past more brash and rugged than our own. As a Seattle firefighter myself, and a member of our region’s wildland firefighting team, I’ve learned that old nickname still applies when it comes to wildland fires. While the development of air packs (similar to a SCUBA system) has mitigated toxin inhalation in structural firefighting environments, the pack affords less than 30 minutes of air during heightened physical exertion. There is simply no practical breathing system for a wildland setting. Yet, the ranks of wildland firefighters are growing as fast as the fires that call to them. All of us are eating tons of smoke, a cancer risk, in these historic blazes.

Any one of these embers could ignite the trees that surround them, setting fire like incendiary rounds in battle.

On their next shift, Squad 40 spends the day laying fire—a tactic in which they use drip torches to purposefully burn areas that will act as a barrier to stop the growth of the fire. Fighting fire with fire isn’t a direct attack, but an indirect tactic that yields incredibly effective results. The burned areas from laying fire are referred to as “the black” and can be man-made or wildfire-made. In both cases, the areas are devoid of fuels needed for the fire to continue burning and are  no longer a concern. It’s a good strategy to create a boundary or a safe zone.

A fire needs three things to survive: oxygen, heat, and fuel. It’s what firefighters call the fire triangle. Take one of the three away, and the fire dies. Laying fire removes fuel. Using water and the plane pilot’s mud removes  heat. In wildland operations there is no way to cut off oxygen supply.

As Squad 40 lays down the last fire from their drip torches, one of the men says, “there’s a herd of wolves!” It’s the guy who cried wolf, and there beyond him is a herd of cows in a field. After a brief silence, the firefighters all laugh, bonded by the severity of their work and a much needed chuckle.

The day has darkened, and Smith and his crew make their way to their strike team leader, Erik Hotchkiss, another Seattle firefighter here as a resource to command a contingent of western Washington brush trucks. Hotchkiss is a chief back home, and out here he works within a multi-agency command structure to manage the evolving conditions. It’s a testament to his grit that he’s even here today. One year ago, almost to the day, Chief Hotchkiss had a serious dirt bike accident that put his life and career in jeopardy. The prognosis was dark, and it was uncertain if he would be able to regain full mobility and function. With a determination common to firefighters, along with six months of physical therapy, Hotchkiss recovered, and deployed at his first opportunity to get back into the fight.

Hotchkiss gives Squad 40 their next assignment: protect a chapel from the inferno. On their way to the chapel they pass through a spike camp—a term for outlier basecamps in backcountry operations—and  see firefighters from various state and local agencies on break in lounge chairs watching the fire in the distance like spectators at the cinema. They pass a screaming local man who has stuck his tractor in a ditch on his way to battle spot fires himself.

The smoky air is heating up now. Squad 40 covers their mouths with wet bandanas to filter and cool the air, albeit temporarily. But the air begins to burn and the smoke soon fills their lungs. With axes they cut down surrounding bush and small trees, doing their best to create a defensible space around the building before the bulk of the fire arrives. They rake loose debris away from the structure. Their chainsaws eat through the trunks of larger trees, and they use all they’ve got to haul the fuel away from the structure. Luckily, the conditions change. The fiery wind dies down, and the chapel survives—for now.

Wind has a major influence on wildfires. The faster it moves, the faster the fire moves with it, or in this case, when the wind dies, the fire can die down, too.

Smith and his crew enter the building to witness what they have saved. Inside, rows of chairs are laid out in a traditional church setting. A cough from one of the men breaks the silence. A chorus of coughs becomes a strange sort of hymn. Smith thinks about what a close call the chapel had and how across America’s growing tinderbox, fire is a constant threat to a way of life.  

A few days later, Smith and his crew in Squad 40 are demobilized because the western head of the fire is now contained and can be managed by the regular fire resources of Cal Fire and the BLM. As they drive north up the west coast, he finds a note in his rucksack from his fiancée, also a firefighter. “I love you sexy. XO, Katie.” He thinks of the plans they have for their wedding, an uncertain date during this unstable year.

As the smoke rises behind them, they exit the miasma of burning trees. Smith inhales the blissfully clear air, knowing it’s only a matter of time before the call will come again. For now, they’ve done their part. But the southerly wind is gaining momentum, and the smoke will follow them home to smother Washington State with ash from California forests. On their drive north, they pass through another set of historic blazes in Oregon, which will  burn over one million acres and substantially destroy three small towns, leveling nearly 3,000 homes and businesses.  

The August Complex fire burned well into November, part of modern California’s year-round fire season, and became the largest in state history. According to the EPA, “climate change is expected to significantly impact California’s forests and contribute to an increase of wildfires in the projected future.” That’s an ominous prediction considering the nature of the 2020 season. The National Interagency Fire Center in its latest forecast for 2021 warns that, “drought continues for much of the West with large swaths of extreme to exceptional drought.” Its outlook for much of the western states is above-normal wildfire conditions, an expected result of the drought and its effects on the fire triangle. Dry fuels and low moisture create prime conditions for fire spread, and this won’t remain a western issue. The Rocky Mountains, east into the Great Basin region, the Southwest, and further east toward the Great Lakes are predicted at higher than normal drought conditions, too. Climate change, excessive fuels, and low moisture will result in a fire triangle like we’ve never seen, one where extreme and frequent fires are an inevitability.

It’s a complicated war where we all have a role, perhaps none more important than the smoke eaters on the front lines.

Lance Garland is a writer and firefighter based in Seattle, Washington.