“It’s like that Sunday night feeling where you’re about to go back to work,” Freeman said. “It’s like that every R&R day.”
Freeman, 32, is on the Carson Interagency Hotshot Crew and lives in Taos County – just like about half of the other crew members. This means that friends and family have been evacuated and are worried about smoking. During their three down days, neighbors will stop them from asking what is going to happen – a question that is impossible to answer.
But it also means that the firefighters are very familiar with the area. A favorite mountain bike trail is now a contingency line.
Hannah Kligman, the team’s chief assistant on the team, said there is a sense of pride associated with working on their “home field”. The 33-year-old Philadelphia native came to Taos more than a decade ago to do field archeology for the Bureau of Land Management, and then became interested in learning about fire after the 2011 Las Conchas flame.
This is her eighth year as a hotshot.
“We have the skills to do that, to be able to be here and try to protect our home forest. It feels very good, “said Kligman. “Especially the hand crew – we’re a very small piece in the face of nature, but at the same time we really have the skills to help.”
A MOSAIC PATTERN
The Calf Canyon / Hermits Peak Fire has surpassed 311,000 acres and is the largest wildfire in the state’s history. It is also the largest fire currently burning in the country.
It is about 46% contained and more than 3,000 staff members are working to control it.
The fire, which started in early April as a prescribed fire northwest of Las Vegas, burned more than 700 structures and led to evacuations of the surrounding towns and communities.
A journal photographer and reporter spent some time with the Carson Interagency Hotshot Crew as they worked to extinguish hot spots in a mountainous region west of Chacon, the northern edge of the blaze.
The site is not far from the Sipapu Ski & Summer Resort, which is now behind roadblocks. Firefighters have set up inflatable water tanks along the road that can be used to wet homes and other buildings as the flames begin to close. about half a mile down a steep embankment along the side of a raw dirt road accessible to all off-road vehicles. Other teams worked closely.
Smoke billowed through the air and dammed up peaks and valleys on the not too far horizon. Although some parts of the forest are described by the crew as “cut-off areas” and “a lunar landscape – where it became very hot and pressed very hard,” in others, the only sign of the fire was mixed with dirt on the ground.
It creates what is called a mosaic pattern throughout the forest.
“So, you have areas that are really hot burning and cleaning everything, and then areas that are green, where it is going to grow and be good again,” said Renette Saba, a public information officer for the incident management team. “But then, as a firefighter, to keep the line, you want it to be black solid so you have safety. And then, if it starts to tear back for whatever reason, it will not push over and burn all that leftover material. ”
EVERY DAY IS DIFFERENT
It’s been two days since a helicopter dropped water on the area – which has cooled it down enough for hot crews to come in to work. They step in – with tools such as shovels and chainsaws, along with their 45-pound backpacks crammed with equipment, snacks and more – and move methodically to put out flames in trees and on the ground.
The speed at which they can work depends on the steepness of the terrain and how hard the ground is while digging. The hot spot of a few acres took them all day to get around, Kligman said.
She crouches to demonstrate and dips her hand in a rag of ashy dirt to see if it’s still hot. It was not, but if it was, the firefighter would pile cold dirt on top of it and rub it in to eliminate any chance of it re-igniting.
Further down the ridge, Freeman and two other crew members called in sawmills – because they use chainsaws – having just cut down a tree that was burning from within. The project took about 20 minutes of planning to determine how to bring the tree down safely and then about 30 seconds to actually cut through the trunk.
After the tree fell, a section burst into flames and the sawmillers dug a ditch around it so that it could burn out.
A lot of what they do is just learn from experience, Kligman said.
“Every day is different,” she said. “You kind of have a toolbox to work from, and over the years you get different slides of situations. But there is no textbook.”
While firefighters focus on the big picture and strategic set on where to place teams, and how to get the upper hand on the flame, the boots on the ground focus on specific tasks. The hotshots have learned to use all their senses – smell of smoke and touch the earth in search of heat – while searching for fuel that can ignite.
“We’re really a drop in the bucket compared to nature and a (300,000)-acre fire,” Kligman said. “Just like working with water, soil, the weather, the fire itself – we will often do many fire operations to contain fire.”
CONSUMPTION BY WORK
For the hotshot teams, the day starts between 5:30 and 6:30 am. They get up and break down their camp, packing tents and sleeping bags because they do not know where they are going to sleep the next night. The top level staff – called overhead – go to a daily briefing and the rest of the crew make sure all their tools and equipment are ready to go. Then they go to the queue and work until about 19:00
No one in the crew has crashed since their tour began 11 days ago.
Kligman said they eat about 8 dinners most evenings and then get “free time” to do whatever they have to do before bedtime. For her, it’s like making a cup of herbal tea on a compact portable stove, no matter how hot it is outside.
The camps are noisy with generators and noises from other teams, and lights can make it difficult to sleep well.
Even asleep, it is difficult to escape work. Kligman said she has a recurring dream where she is digging a line and the rocks are getting bigger and bigger until they can not move it as the fire burns beneath.
“That dream was repeated in various ways,” she said. “Like digging our line and it’s not working, and I’m already stressed and then I wake up.”
During the fire season – usually from March to September, although the teams have cut short their training to go to the field this year – life is pretty much consumed by the daily tasks involved in fighting the fire, leaving little time for anything else.
“It’s a very zen state of mind just to be able to wake up, and you know what your duties are and what your duties are within the crew …” Kligman said. “Especially on this fire, we did not have much telephone service – you will probably not talk to your loved ones or people at home.”
Kligman goes out with another of the hotshots – she said they have a personal rule to talk about the fire on their days off – but many of the crew are single. The lifestyle is not conducive to a partner, children, pets or even a garden.
“I have a cactus,” joked one hotshot.
The crew still has a few days left in the woods, but Kligman said she has already started dreaming about the first meal she will make at home – a kale salad and mashed potatoes. She even made a shopping list.
After eating a good healthy meal, Kligman, who had previously run ultramarathons, said she plans to run a short distance and visit her “off-the-grid” cabin.
“That’s also why I enjoy our work – because I like walking and being outside,” she adds. “I knew when I was pretty young, I could never do a desk job.”