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Life on the California fire line, as the family waits back home

Fighting fires in California means danger, exhaustion, and days away from family. A spirit of service – and all the public appreciation – helps a lot.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 5, 2009

Irwindale, California

On duty at the Chico, Calif., fire house on the evening of Aug. 29, Capt. Mike Lopez got a call asking him to get ready to leave for Southern California.

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Three hours later, Lopez was driving one of four engines, each with four "strike teams", down California's I-5 toward La Cañada, where smoke was billowing over the town and casting ruddy sunsets from Las Vegas to Denver.

"I had planned to take my wife and kids camping over Labor Day weekend, but they all know my job takes precedence," says Mr. Lopez, a 20-year veteran firefighter.

The four strike teams drove all night, arriving at 8:30 a.m. and were promptly sent to bed to be ready for evening line duty. Line duty includes raking, digging, and taking chain saws to unwieldy chaparral underbrush – in this case, on steep canyon walls.

Because the fire broke out in Angeles National Forest, the US Forest Service is in charge, and it dictates 12-hour shifts for the firemen. Lopez says he prefers California Dept. of Forestry and Fire's 24-hour shifts because it means more time to rest between shifts.

"It takes so much time to get back to base camp after a day of firefighting that [with a 12 hour shift] by the time you get into bed, you only have about 5 hours of sleep before you have to leave again," he says. "After a week or so of that, the lack of real rest takes a big toll."

The loss of two firefighters in the L.A. wildfire – which raged over 154,655 acres, destroying at least 76 homes and dozens of other structures – has brought special attention to the sacrifices made by firefighters, many flown in from around California and other states.

"It's not just that these guys are working around the clock to save people and neighborhoods," says Terry McHale, spokesman for CDF Firefighters, the state firefighters union. "They are doing it day after day, week after week, with little break and leaving their families behind while they do it."

A long fire season