Behind the fire lines

As wildland firefighters take on raging infernos in Oregon, they face 12-hour days that start at 5 a.m., long hikes carrying up to 45 pounds of equipment, and weeks away from home.

Wildland firefighting is the closest thing there is to hand-to-hand combat without firearms or a human opponent. It's bivouacking in the field with comrades just as dependent on one another as soldiers in war.

And it draws largely on the courage of young people.

They learn quickly from veterans like Bob Wilken, a division chief here on the 6,000-plus-acre Quartz Fire in southern Oregon. Mr. Wilken, who has fought fires from Florida to Alaska for 27 years, gets their attention with quips like, "Fire runs uphill faster than a scared man can run."

Only the fittest need apply. One minimum requirement: be able to hike three miles with a 45-pound pack in less than 45 minutes. On steep, smoky mountainsides, firefighters carry chain saws, lengths of firehose, backpacks full of water, and shovels or "Pulaskis" (a combination ax and hoe). That's in addition to their personal safety gear, which includes a shelter they can crawl into if they find themselves surrounded by advancing fire.

"It's a young man's game," says Oregon Deputy State Fire Marshal Charles Chase, whose 19-year-old son has joined firefighters here for the summer. Young women, too, he might have added, although they are relatively few in number.

But there are veterans with the youngsters on the fire line - like Ralph DiBernado, a retired deputy fire chief from Portsmouth, N.H. Mr. DiBernado is part of the "New Hampshire No. One" crew that's been here for a week and is now awaiting their next assignment. He started fighting fires 40 years ago, when he was just 18.

Today, it's not the $12 an hour that brings DiBernado to this demanding work, but the chance to help train younger wildland firefighters. How long will he be gone from home? "Oh, maybe two weeks. Three weeks, if my wife will let me," he smiles. Although the Quartz Fire was contained last week, crews will continue to work the area, looking for hot spots that could flare up.

The camp, in a state park along the Applegate River, is temporary home to more than 2,000 firefighters and support staff from at least a dozen states and several government agencies. Small tents are packed together. There are lines at the few pay phones. Some men are bathing and washing their ash-smudged clothes in the river. Long lines inch forward for dinner, eaten standing up at long tables. Tonight, it's chicken fajitas, rice, and cake.

Volunteers from the nearby Applegate Christian Fellowship Church are handing out ice cream bars, which were donated from local supermarkets.

Camp is crowded now, as the day crew comes in from its 12-hour shift, having been relieved by the night crew. There might be a volleyball game, or guys gathered to kick a foot bag. But, for the most part, the atmosphere is subdued. It's been another hot, hard day, and the jolting 1-1/2-hour ride down the mountain is anything but relaxing. Mostly, they just want to eat, clean up, and crawl into their sleeping bags, knowing that 5 a.m. will come all too soon.

Some of the crews speak only Spanish. Others are from minimum-security state prisons. ("Inmate" is stenciled in orange on the legs of their olive-drab pants.)

Nearby, the Oregon National Guard crews are also just returning from the fire line. Crew leader Clint Dalbom circles up his 20 troops. This is the first fire for most of them, and safety is the prime concern. "I'm tickled that nobody got hurt when that log rolled down on us in steep terrain," says Mr. Dalbom, an experienced firefighter who works for the Missouri Department of Conservation. "Let's be careful out there. Everything can be going along hunky-dory, then the [stuff] hits the fan." He keeps the speech short, friendly, and to the point, then everybody wanders off to chow.

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