Challenging, rewarding and dynamic. These are all words that can describe the life of a firefighter. But it isn’t just a job for a firefighter; it’s their life each day as they make sure people in the community and their own team members are safe.
And often they are going far beyond their own communities — more than 20 firefighters from Tehachapi and more than 100 Kern County Fire Department personnel have joined the fight on federal and state fires in California in the past two years.
“You know what you are supposed to do and you are a piece of a bigger picture," said Kevin Ostrinski, battalion chief in Tehachapi.
Even though it takes considerable time and being away from their own families for sometimes more than six months, they bring back knowledge that helps their own region, if a large disaster were to happen.
Multiple crews of three to four personnel at each of more than 40 fire stations in Kern County help oversee various areas in each city or town, but can go to state or federal fires to offer their expertise.
There can be as many as 3,000 to 8,000 personnel on a large fire, said fire Engineer Richard Murillo, who is based at the Golden Hills Fire Station in Tehachapi. Murillo has gone to many fires in California, Oregon, Montana and other countries.
Many leaders are needed to make sure that strike teams and the public stay safe.
On a large-scale fire that spreads to hundreds of thousands of acres, it takes organization. A structure called the Incident Command System starts with a commander, leaders in four main sections and general staff that make up categories of support.
There are four main categories — operations, planning, logistical, and finance and administration.
“The structure is designed with the capacity to enlarge and expand depending on how the size or complexity of the incident,” said Andrew Freeborn, Public Information Officer for the Kern County Fire Department.
The operations section oversees the actual operations for those present at the scene of the fire and resources; planning creates maps and sends out crew members to successfully fight the fire; housing, food, medical needs and other supplies are managed by the the logistical section; and a finance section is organized to bill for expenses for equipment, such as helicopters.
Many firefighters can be requested from a database that can can select personnel from closest areas to provide assistance, added Freeborn.
“When we go out and support these other units they turn around and come out and support us as well, when we have large incidents in our own county and one department can’t physically handle a large incident,” Ostrinski said.
Many times firefighters base their camps away from the general population and can make their own city or town.
“Most of these fires are not in a populated area where there are homes,” said Capt. Eric Williams from the Mojave Fire Station. “They usually are in remote areas, so you can’t have your firefighters drive in three-and-a-half hours one way, to get on scene and come back in, so you try to get your camp as close as possible.”
Williams and other personnel make sure firefighters receive the medical attention they need based on assessments given by trained personnel in the field.
Dealing with fatalities, scheduling medical needs out of the area, trying to provide help to a firefighter by finding their location by cell phone tower can be stressful, said Williams.
“We basically are making an action plan for everything that is going to happen for that hurt firefighter,” said Williams.
Murillo, an engineer out of the Golden Hills Fire Station, has expertise as a Geographic Information Specialist that creates maps and tracks fires. He was called to the Carr Fire, which started in July and burned more than 200,000 acres. An Incident Action Plan is followed so every firefighter knows where the fire has spread and where teams are located.
Hypervigilance on the job
The emotional toll on the team in providing support and care to others is always challenging, especially when there is a fatality or when you have friends who live in the area, said Murillo.
“Everyone tries to keep it kind of lively, because you are in it for the long haul, but when something like this happens ... the mood in camp is definitely dampened down,” Murillo said.
Counselors, therapy dogs and volunteers are there to help, if firefighters reach out for assistance.
A fire can spread rapidly based on wind speed, fuel and whether firefighters can access an area quickly. Leaders direct strike teams to go to certain sections of a fire in order to contain it and sometimes those groups can multiply, depending on the need, said Williams.
“We are always hypervigilant of our surroundings and the weather patterns that are happening in real time, so that we can make adjustments for those, so we are not in areas that put us in danger and if we are, we retreat to a safety zone or we go to a different area that keeps us safe until the weather event has changed or we change how we are fighting the fire,” Ostrinski said.
Firefighters have very little down time, can be called at all hours of the day, and are always building their knowledge.
Williams said that family activities, such as vacations and sports activities, can be interrupted.
“Being gone a lot can be tough,” said Williams. He added, “There is not a lot of down time in the summer especially during fire season for family stuff, so we try to take vacations when we can.”
In the past two years there have been more than 20 fires in various parts of California. Many of the fires have covered thousands of acres due to drought, the bark beetle, and other reasons.
“There is more than one factor, how much logging versus not logging, the drought, beetle kill. You can add all these factors together and it creates this environment where fires are just getting bigger, quicker and harder to contain,” said Ostrinski.