Chuck Koeller and his 20-man firefighting team were bushed. The U.S. Forest Service crew had just spent 32 long days on the fire lines in Northern California, 32 days straight of digging and cutting and back-burning to try to save a forest.
Koeller and the rest of the team had barely returned to their home post in the Cleveland National Forest when, on Sunday, the call came out again. This time, it was closer to home--a blaze was spreading across Palomar Mountain in North San Diego County, scorching thousands of acres of timber and engulfing several homes.
Time to tighten the belt and head out again.
'I Think We'll Be Here a Week'
"Just looking at it, I think we'll be here a week," Koeller said Monday, trying hard to sound matter-of-fact after working through the night and spending a fitful eight hours attempting to sleep in broad daylight. "From the looks of that column of smoke, we probably lost everything we accomplished last night."
Koeller was among 1,000 firefighters mobilized in San Diego County over the weekend to battle the blaze that rolled through the thick oak and brush on Palomar Mountain. Drawn from as far away as Indiana and Ohio, they came armed with shovels and picks, water hoses and pumper trucks, ready to go one-on-one with the uncompromising flames.
Although the fire was still spreading, several teams of firefighters were said to have steered some of the flames to harmless dead-ends or successfully lighted backfires to consume the brush and branches in the path of the blaze.
"It's just a lot of hard, grueling work," said Capt. Carl Thomas, who heads a 15-man California Department of Forestry crew. "It takes time. You're glad when that shift is through, but you know there's always going to be another one."
Thomas slumped wearily against a truck late Monday afternoon in a temporary camp set up near the top of Palomar Mountain, in a paved lot normally filled with campers and tourists. He had just gotten maybe six hours of sleep after putting in his second 16-hour shift since the fire erupted Saturday. A quick dinner and then another 16 hours at the front of the lines still lay ahead.
"I guess a lot of the crews, because the fire season is at hand, are really worn out," Thomas said, his eyes red from the smoke and lack of sleep. "We've just been going, going, going. Mentally, it gets real hard."
Thomas estimated that, so far, his team had dug several miles of fire breaks in an effort to cut off the blaze.
The technique is simple, the work laborious. Using shovels, the firefighters throw dirt on the perimeter of the flames, then work their way back, carefully cutting a break in the trees and brush to contain the fire.
'Fire Moves Really Fast'
"The meat of fighting this fire right now is hand work," Thomas said. "We haven't had any injuries yet--thank God for that. But this fire moves really fast through this brush."
Out along a road leading into Palomar Mountain State Park, Dave Delashmutt and a CDF team of firefighters from Tulare County were witnessing just that.
As ash drifted down like snowflakes, Delashmutt and the others stood beside their red pumper trucks and watched the flames approach down a ridge.
"That's probably the hardest part," Delashmutt said. "Coming up here and waiting . . . it's just a waiting game."
Earlier in the day, as the team prepared to do battle, residents of homes that dot the mountain were busy loading their most precious belongings on pickups and into cars, fleeing the advancing flames.
Soon the fire burst forward with a rush, sending heat and smoke boiling into the air. "OK, boys, time to go to work," one of the firefighters announced. Within minutes, the crews were hosing down trees and scampering about to put out hot spots caused by airborne embers.
As Delashmutt and the rest worked, Alan Riddle and his team from the U.S. Forest Service relaxed and watched another section of flames from a nearby ridgetop.
Riddle was supposed to have Saturday and Sunday off but he volunteered to work on his days off when the Palomar blaze erupted. The two 16-hour shifts he put in over the weekend, however, didn't seem to bother him.
"Yeah, I worked my days off but I like helping out," Riddle said, his face still covered with a three-day growth of beard. "I'll donate my time any day of the week if it means helping save some trees and some homes and maybe even some lives."