America's Unsung Heroes: The 'Volunteer' Firefighters

Teachers, students, judges head for the mountains

At a makeshift fire camp on the southern edge of the Mendicino National Forest, fly-fishing guide David Foster eagerly awaits his turn to battle the wildfire racing through the tall pines and manzanita brush just over a nearby ridge.

"It's frustrating that we haven't been able to fight fire. It's what we came here to do," says Mr. Foster, sitting on a bench under a smoke-filled sky, watching a boxing match on TV.

A volunteer with the Albion-Little River, Calif., fire department, Foster has pulled on yellow Nomex pants and dug fire lines in eight major forest fires during the past 12 years.

In a summer fast becoming one of the worst forest-fire seasons on record, when resources are stretched thin, seasonal firefighters like Foster can be the difference between losing a forest and saving it.

Like the professionals, these "volunteers" leave their families and office jobs to risk their lives fighting walls of flames in rugged canyons and on uncharted mountain slopes.

They are ski instructors, school teachers, native Americans, Hispanic migrant field workers, and blue-collar-types from thousands of small towns. Even some prison inmates are brought to the front lines. Utah, for examples, fields an all-inmate crew called the Flame 'N Go's, which is among the elite "Hot Shots" dispatched all over the country.

Today, women make up 40 percent of these fighters - at least double the number a decade ago, says Bob Clark, state fire-management officer for the Bureau of Land Management in Idaho.

"I know of at least one judge who was formerly a smoke jumper," says Mr. Clark, referring to the daredevils who fly into remote fires and use hand tools and dirt to bury flames.

Twenty years ago, Clark fought fires in the summer to help pay for college. Today, he says there are plenty of doctors, lawyers, and dentists-to-be working their way through college battling the blazes.

Grueling work

The money can be good. During an average season, these part-time firefighters can bring home $7,000 in a summer. But the job is grueling: 12 hour days of digging trenches and breathing thick smoke for 100 hours a week and as long as 21 days at a time.

This season, more than 20,000 firefighters have been working around the clock to battle blazes in nine Western states. California has brought in additional National Guard units to help fortify its fire lines. Even 500 soldiers from Fort Carson in Colorado were recently called in.

To date, more than 4.3 million acres have burned across the United States and Alaska, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. That compares with a total 4.7 million acres in 1994 and 4.6 million acres in 1990 - two of the worst fire seasons on record.

"Resources are very far stretched," says Rose Davis of the Fire Center, adding that 96 percent of crews are currently dispatched.

The fires have already destroyed more than 500 homes and other structures - more than 300 in Alaska alone.

A combination of factors is blamed for this year's explosion of fires - the majority of them started by lightening, with only a few reports of arson.

A hot dry summer in the West, helped give the fire season an early head start. And a wet winter in the Northwest and western Plains sprouted thick grass and brush, turning the area into a tinder box by summer.

Costs are climbing as well. Since July, more than $290 million have been spent fighting fires. But that's still off the 1994 record, when nearly a $1 billion was pumped into fighting blazes on more than 4.5 million acres.

Ten days ago, this makeshift US Forest Service command center at the high school in Upper Lake didn't even exist.

More than 3,000 professional and volunteer firefighters from 12 states - bringing 248 fire engines, 15 helicopters, eight air tankers and 46 bulldozers - have converged here to battle one of the largest and most destructive wildfires in the Golden State in recent years.

Fanned by dry winds, and 105-degree F temperatures, the fire has already consumed more than 110 square miles of heavily timbered forest, caused $8.1 million in damage, and 450 evacuations. Fire officials say only 25 percent of the blaze has been contained.

The fire is being fought on four fronts, with 1,000 men and women going out in each shift. When they come back soot-caked and exhausted from the front lines where temperatures reach 2,000 degrees F, they recuperate in the yellow and blue tents scattered over the playing fields behind the high school.

Busy throughout the camp are not just volunteer firefighters but cooks, clerical workers, and teenagers running errands. Many, like James Street a ham radio operator from Colusa County, are trained by the California Office for Emergency Services.

"I was needed," says Mr. Street, sitting in a wheelchair, tweaking radio dials and keeping track of the messages coming in from a variety of fronts.

"The local people have been here since this fire started and needed people to relieve them. It's also an opportunity to learn how to handle emergencies in my own county," he says.

Street is an amateur radio emergency coordinator, trained to be a liaison between emergency services and forest agency representatives at the camp.

When the police, fire, and other emergency frequencies get jammed with traffic, ham radio operators help with such things as sending medical data to nearby hospitals and coordinating the delivery of food supplies to the camp.

"Volunteers are most often motivated by a sense of community and pride - and necessity," says Natalie Carter of the California Department of Forestry.

Fire training

Most volunteer firefighters get 40 hours of training plus two to four days of hands-on experience battling a blaze before they are considered qualified to fight a forest fire.

But they are often stop-gap workers who step in when the professionals get overwhelmed.

Like Foster, Carl Mechling and Mike Meuschke of the Mendicino Volunteer Fire Department have only worked one day so far.

But their enthusiasm has not been dampened: "We love this type of atmosphere, this type of work, and the local community is so thankful it's very rewarding," says Mr. Mechling, a supervisor at the Department of Public Works in Mendicino.

*Staff writer Shelley Donald Coolidge contributed to this report.

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