7.27.2008

wildfire - day one

I got back a week ago, exhausted and saturated with smoke. It took me several days of nearly non-stop sleep to catch up, then there was unpacking and fire station shifts and ogling of the garden (the sugar snap peas are four feet tall!) I was hoping to get back out on one more fire before Paramedic Academy starts in August, but today was my cut-off date. No more fires for me this year ... but I will be back on the list next summer. I love this job.

After I got the fire call on the first of July, I spent all night packing and repacking and repacking again. I woke up early and headed to the Department of Natural Resources office for the usual bout of W2 and I9 and if-I-burn-up-who-do-we-call paperwork. Then I got the sheet of paper - a resource order - that had the request for a fire-line qualified medic for the Cub Complex fire in Lassen National Forest, my name filling that request, and flight information to get me down to California. I then met Doug, a fellow fire medic and firefighter with the City also headed for the Cub Complex, at the Alaska Fire Service warehouse. At the warehouse, we were issued the fire resistant yellow-shirt-and-green-pants that are the wildland firefighter uniform, as well as a helmet, gloves, goggles, fire shelter and line pack, and a heavy "line medic" bag with a pharmacy of OTC medicine, burn dressings and bandages. Back home for one last gear check and repack, then off to the airport. [Below right ... classic yellow-and-green wildland fire gear.]

Doug and I arrived at the Reno airport under gray, smoky skies. After some cellphone tag we met up with a State Forestry worker with a truck and headed to Denny's to get some breakfast. We'd taken the red-eye from Anchorage to LA, and I cannot sleep in airplanes - especially against a bulkhead with a three-year-old in the middle seat. I was pretty groggy. Eventually we made our way out of Reno to Susanville. There we stopped at Forestry Headquarters and switched from the nice quad-cab with air conditioning to a stripped-down, bench seat truck with a flat bed and manual transmission that needed a tune up a year ago. Guess who got the middle seat for the last winding hour through the mountains to Chester? It wasn't the big burly firefighters ... but I didn't care. The journey was almost over.

We rolled into camp at about three pm, and it was clear that the Cub Complex fire had taken over the sleepy little lakeside town. The high school and elementary school fields were packed wall to wall with firefighter sleeping tents. Huge mess-hall and office tents covered the rest of the grass. Catering trucks and semis full of equipment were parked on every available gravel surface around the school. The surrounding neighborhood was packed full of trucks, engines and fire equipment at night, parked along the side of every road for blocks. "Thank You Firefighter" and "Cub Complex Camp - This Way" signs were on every other corner. The sky was darker, almost dingy with soot.

[tent city at the Chester high school]
We found our way to check-in, got time cards and other paperwork and then directions to the Medical Unit which had been established in the girls locker room adjacent to the gym. Tables were set up dividing the room into "waiting area" and "staff area" and the lockers behind the tables were open to create shelves for everything from blood pressure cuffs and trauma dressings to chapstick and sunblock. To my relief, I saw lots of cell phones plugged in and charging behind the locker block. Communication! I charged my phone and slipped out to call Peter as soon as I could manage it.

[medical unit]
Doug and I got our stuff organized, leaving our med-bags and line gear in the med unit, then hoofed it over to the (quieter) elementary school field with another newly arrived medic and the rest of our gear. We set up our tents in a corner, then walked around the camp getting our bearings:
Supply at the tennis courts (here we checked out tools, extra rope and sleeping pads for makeshift splints and toilet paper.)
Finance, Maps, Safety, HR, Planning in various high school class rooms.
Communications (radios!) next to the football field.
Ground Support in the staff parking lot.
Briefing in the gym.
Showers in the portable unit on the track.
Catering truck in the soccer field.
Sack Lunches, bottled water and ice in the student parking lot.

It was nearly five pm, and I was desperate for sleep but wasn't sure if I could head back to my tent. There was someone new transitioning into the Medical Unit Leader position, and the unit was in a bit of chaos. I took my cues from the other EMTs (so far, I counted five of us) and hung around passing out cough drops and eye drops and Nyquill to firefighters returning from the line. I watched a few medics treat blisters, and was relieved to see that my extensive blister care training through WFR was the protocol here as well.

I went for supper in the huge mess tent, and noted that the flow was set up to file firefighters past a line of port-a-jons, then a line of sinks, then past the catering truck for the main dish, then into a 'condiment and drink tent' before ending up at the tents with long tables and chairs. I was glad to see both a salad bar and a huge supply of chocolate milk being iced down as I made my way through. I also noticed two sulky looking teenagers in "CCC' shirts counting the number of folks passing by with full plates from the catering truck.

[smoke column from the fire visible from camp]
After another hour or so in the med unit, I decided I needed to sleep. Badly. Not counting a few hours of fitful upright airplane catnap, I'd been awake for nearly 48 hours. According to what I could gather, we were all expected back at 0500 to start treating blisters and wrapping sore ankles. I was beat. I headed outside and was shocked to find it was dark.

I had not seen natural darkness since mid-May, and in all the hubub of arriving I had totally forgotten about my drastic decline in latitude over the last twenty four hours. It hadn't even occurred to me to dig out my headlamp - thank goodness I'd even thought to pack it.

I found my tent by the glow of nearby street lamps, set my green-and-yellow fire gear, boots and wool socks at the ready and set my watch alarm for 0430. I was out before my head hit the sleeping bag.

2 comments:

Jesper said...

So, what the hell, I'm thinking of taking the EMT class at the tech school here. I mean, when the apocalypse comes down, this is a great skill set to have, yes? And a hell of a lot of fun until then. =)

.m. said...

You should. It's a blast, and useful to boot.