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Novice Forest Fire 'Mop-Up' Crews Have to Be Ready for Front Lines

Safety: Seasonal crews, mostly college-age, primarily do support duty but risk all for $10.97 an hour. It's dangerous and scary but 'addictive,' they say.

September 12, 2001|LISA LEFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Sundowners, a seasonal fire crew assigned to the Los Padres National Forest, have a special bond with the four young firefighters killed last month while battling a wildfire in Washington state.

Like the victims of the nation's deadliest forest fire since 1994, the Sundowners are mostly college-aged rookies eager to face real flames. They, too, were hired primarily for "mop-up" duty--the job of going in behind the U.S. Forest Service's elite "hotshot" hand crews with axes and shovels to reduce smoldering debris to ashes. They understand the mix of moxie, bravado and romanticism that compels some people to risk their lives for $10.97 an hour.

"My girlfriend hates it and my family doesn't quite understand it. But after the whole winter off, there is nothing you want to do but come back and fight another fire. It's addictive, big-time," said Ricky Williams, 22, of Ventura, who is in his second summer with the Sundowners, an Ojai-based crew formed in 1968.

This summer, there are about 200 firefighters, many of them beginners recruited from high school and college campuses, defending Southern California's four national forests on an on-call basis. During the May-to-November fire season, these so-called Type 2 hand crews are "the bulk of our force," said Matt Mathes, a Forest Service spokesman. These teams are sent in either to supplement the primary crews or to fill in at home while the hotshots are away working other active fires in the West.

Although fighting wildfires has always been the province of the young and adventurous, the role played by such provisional hand crews has come under scrutiny in the aftermath of the fatalities in Washington's Okanagon National Forest. The firefighters who perished in the line of duty, ages 18, 19, 21 and 30, were in a crew similar to the Sundowners, and some of their families have criticized the Forest Service for allowing novices with limited experience to serve on the front lines of uncontrolled fires.

The tragedy, however, has not dampened the enthusiasm of local crew members, who are not Forest Service employees, but work for private contractors engaged by local ranger districts to provide temporary reinforcements as needed. After the July 10 tragedy, the Sundowners spent many hours discussing what they could learn from it.

"A major part of our training is fatality fires. From the first day, you are told it could happen," said Ventura's Matt Aoki, 30, now in his sixth season with the crew.

Hundreds of Hours Building Endurance

With 13 of the 20 crew members in their first season, Aoki is considered a Sundowner veteran. (Women have served with the group in the past, but the crew is currently all-male.) So far, the beginners have fought two fires: a 15-acre brush fire in the Upper Ojai area that was extinguished with the help of a Ventura County engine crew and two helicopters, and a 550-acre blaze in Sequoia National Forest near Fresno that took five days to extinguish.

In the meantime, they have spent about 220 hours building endurance on steep hiking trails, digging practice firebreaks and learning to work as a team.

"Physically, it's by far much harder than anything I've ever done," said David Berkovich, 20, a former high school football player and demolition worker from Camarillo who is among the newcomers.

Crew members receive the same basic training. Candidates must complete 32 hours of classroom instruction on topics such as wildfire behavior and personal safety, then must walk three miles carrying a 35-pound backpack in less than 45 minutes. They must also demonstrate proficiency in deploying the emergency fire shelters that all wild land firefighters carry.

Finally, crew members must commit to being available to report for duty on two hours' notice, a condition that prohibits traveling outside of the area during fire season.

Motivations for signing up vary. Most hope to eventually land full-time jobs with municipal fire departments or the Forest Service. For some, the opportunity to test the limits of their physical and mental stamina provides the draw.

"When I get up every day, I'm totally motivated to get up here and hang out with this group, and to get in the best shape of my life," said Paul Hiott, 22, of Ventura. "If I can do this, I feel like I can accomplish anything."

Others relish doing something exciting while working outdoors and earning decent money; by putting in the 16-hour days and 14-day shifts that are standard for active fires, a beginning firefighter can make about $1,250 a week. Aoki, for one, said he makes enough during the six-month fire season that he can afford to take the rest of the year off to surf and travel.

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