As the Western United States and other arid climates around the world face increased wildfire activity, many civilians are forced to flee. Wildland firefighters run toward the flames. One such firefighter, Jeff Ellis, based in Incline Village, Nevada, shared what it is like to spend a day in the shadow of an infamous California wildfire.
The last big fire Ellis was assigned to was the Caldor Fire. From August to October of 2021, the Caldor Fire burned over 220,000 acres around Lake Tahoe, CA. Supervising a 22-person hand crew, Ellis tamed the behemoth from the front lines. “We get to be up close and personal with the fire and get to see things that most people don’t get to see in real life, which is a really cool experience,” Ellis said.
The teams must be prepared before fire season starts in the late spring or early summer. They keep their vehicles loaded with equipment and fuel so that, when they get the call, they are ready to go. When called to a “roll,” which can last anywhere from 2 days to 2 weeks, the crews stay at the fire, working every day of their assignment.
These days start at 6am. The crew wakes up to a smell like that of a very large campfire. The firefighters then have 10 minutes from the time their alarms go off to get going. Ellis is unphased as he prepares to face the flames. “I’m very seldom nervous,” said Ellis, who has been a firefighter for eight years. Even when he was less experienced, Ellis had faith in the judgment of his higher-ups. Now, Ellis’ crew trusts him.
On a typical shift, which lasts 16 hours, the crew will focus primarily on fuels management, strategically cutting trees and brush that might otherwise feed the wildfire. Sometimes they prep dozer lines, where the bulldozers will shave the ground down to bare soil, creating a perimeter to stop the fire. Most of the time, the crew puts in these perimeter lines with hand tools. These “hand lines” can be direct lines, which are adjacent to the fire’s edge, or indirect lines, which are more distanced from the fire’s edge. Once the fire draws closer, the firefighters secure lines by removing underburned fuels to prevent them from being burned later. The crew also spends these shifts “mopping up:” putting out residual burning in hopes of reducing the potential for flames to cross the line.
“Basically everything we’re doing is trying to prevent the fire from being able to get over that control line that you’ve put in to stop progression of the fire,” Ellis said.
Sometimes, though, it feels like all this hard work is for nothing. When the fire is blazing out of control, it can plow through the hand lines the crew has just spent hours laying, and they’ll have to do it all over again.
When the fire department is short staffed and the fire is particularly aggressive, typically in the early days, these shifts can reach 36 hours. To ward off exhaustion as the shift drags on, Ellis relies on caffeine and comradery. “Working with a crew is a total brotherhood,” he said. “It’s working with other guys that are working as hard as they can, honestly being pretty miserable out there but everybody’s doing it together working towards a common goal. It’s a really fulfilling thing.”
The crew grows particularly close during fire season, when they are often away from their homes for large amounts of time. “Over those six months we spend more time with each other than we do with our family or friends during that time,” Ellis said.
Ellis and his team cannot always afford a break, even during these longer shifts. The firefighters stuff food in their pockets to keep them going. Sometimes they’ll rotate to give each other a short 30 minute break.
To maintain safety, the crew adheres to a system called LACES: Lookouts, Anchor Points, Communications, Escape Routes, Safety Zones. Each day on a fire, Ellis and his crew apply these principles. Sometimes they might need to take shelter in a safety zone, a designated area where the fuel has been removed. Thus far, he has stayed out of harm’s way. “I’ve taken an escape route a handful of times in my career,” Ellis said. “But I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve had to actually run away from a fire.”
As the crew supervisor, Ellis also worries about potential medical problems that might arise. It’s common to develop a cough when fighting a fire, but it usually resolves itself within a few days. Ellis does worry about allergic reactions occurring while in the wilderness. This can happen due to bee stings or if a crew member is allergic to something in the brush being burned.
By the end of their shift, Ellis and his crew are exhausted. Once away from the fireline, they prepare for the next day by rehabbing their equipment, refilling the water in their packs, and cleaning and sharpening their tools. Then, the crew typically finds a place to camp apart from the general base camp. “It helps cut down on exposure to any kind of germs going around the camp,” Ellis said. Sometimes this is an empty campsite or a barren plot of ground off the fire road. Unless they venture to the base camp, the team will eat a dinner of MRE’s, ready-to-eat meals originally designed for the U.S. military. They set up their sleeping bags and sleeping pads on top of the dirt. Unless it’s raining the firefighters sleep under the stars — and try to get some rest before another long day.