*Working A WildFire*
By: Californian
22 July 2003

I was working a wildland fire in the San Bernardino National Forest, north of Big Bear Lake in August 1999. That area is fairly steep and rugged with standing timber (pine) and brush (mesquite). We'd been chasing lightning fires for about 2 weeks by then and were pretty strung out.

My engine was working on holding a flank line, which means we were trying to stay mobile and catch spot fires and slop-over. We got called to one on a hill side at a bend in the fire line (most prone to slop at bends).

It was about 1000 hours, the temp was already over 100 degrees, with humidity below 18%. Those conditions are a red flag for rapid fire spread in and of themselves. Our engine gets to the spot with another about a minute behind us. I take the newbie fire fighter that's working with me and we head up the hill on the fire's right flank, laying down a progressive hose-lay. The other engine crew shows up and I hand the nozzle off to their senior fire fighter and head back down for more hose. I get another pack from the engine and get back up the hill to find that the hose-lay had gotten to the head of the fire, but they couldn't hook it because they had run out of hose.

About the time I get back up there, the wind shifted and fire jumped our hose to start burning on the other side of our line.

Fire burns up hill really well, which is what happened next. We had fire below us and now had fire on both sides of us as well. Also, since we didn't manage to hook the head, with the change in wind direction, that took off and was crossing over in front of us.

I told everybody there to start looking for deployment areas and got on the radio with emergency traffic for our division chief. I informed him where we were and of our situation, then requested air support. As the Air Attack unit (basically a flying air-traffic control) started stacking aircraft up, I pulled my fire shelter out of the pouch. I mention this because it was an admission that I had lost it, we could die here. The other fire fighters were clearing areas to deploy their shelters about the time the first aircraft started hitting our position. They brought in everything they had on that fire, including both fixed and rotory wings, up to Type-I units.

Type-I aircraft are the really big ones like Chinooks and Sikorskis, C-130's and so on. They don't usually use them over people, because they have been known to cause injury or death due to their size and payload. Anyway, they hammered us with aircraft until an L.A. County bulldozer pushed a line into us (darned near ran over a fire fighter when he came up on our position).

When we got down off that hill (never caught that spot fire, it added a couple hundred acres in the next day) our yellow nomex had burned to white in the shoulders and legs, a few of us had light first degree burns and all of our eyes were about the size of silver dollars.

I'm not afraid to say that I thought I might well have died there.

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