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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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

After his first night of duty, Lopez is one of 500 fighters moved from the main base camp to a satellite camp near the Santa Fe Dam Recreation area about 30 miles east. They've been moved to reduce the jam of 3,000 firefighters in the main camp, a community recreation center.

Surrounded by dingy air, the satellite camp is orderly and quiet during the day. There are several large food tents with fruit and salad bars, and granola dispensers. There is a medical facility, a laundry, and nearly a dozen, air-conditioned "mobile sleeper" units, each accommodating 42 people in tiny-but-comfortable bunk beds.

At 9 a.m. Friday, it is 90 degrees Fahrenheit in these fields miles away from the flames. Many firefighters suffer from heat-related exhaustion as they wear up to 50 pounds of clothes and equipment, says Lopez.

The six-month fire season from June to December takes a toll, but Lopez says he is well paid for the work. His salary is $84,000 for a 72 hour week. With overtime he often gets closer to $110,000 a year.

"The satisfaction quotient" is also high, he says. "People really appreciate us and say so and we can feel it. Law enforcement people work for the public in dangerous circumstances just like we do, but somehow they don't seem to get appreciated as much."

Of all the jobs that firefighters do – laying hose, clearing brush, saving victims, piloting helicopters and airplanes – Lopez says the most satisfying is "spraying fire with a hose. It gives you a rush and is really fun."

A toll on family

One high cost is time with family, his wife Tammy and two kids, Nick and Christina.

"For the first 10 years, I think I missed eight Christmases," he says. "This job is very hard on marriages. Many of my firefighter friends are divorced."

But his wife Tammy grew up as the daughter of a California State firefighter and knows what to expect, he says.

"Of course, we wanted to go camping and the trailer is ready in the front yard, but I knew not to pack it yet or get my hopes up," says Tammy, in a phone interview. "The kids have grown up with this, as I did. My birthday was in December and dad was never there. When Mike does go out on fires like this, I tell the kids, 'It's OK, dad's gonna be gone for awhile'."

One thing she doesn't like is watching TV coverage. "I don't like finding out that the fire is out of control, or when they make an announcement that firefighters have died," she says.

But she appreciates the public gratitude, too. La Cañada Mayor Laura Olhasso will soon be announcing a celebration for the thousands of firefighters that have been sent to her small town. There are banners and signs all over town thanking the firefighters.

"These guys really do put a lot of time and sacrifice into their work, and it's really heartwarming to know it's appreciated," says Tammy. "They will do anything to save you and your house. That's what makes them firemen."

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