Fire is – as they tell new firefighters in rookie school – a rapid oxidation of material through combustion, and the only way to stop it is to remove the oxygen, fuel or heat that allows it to burn. There are countless academic papers, textbooks and studies that break down the myriad of reactions that occur when something burns. But, the first time a rookie encounters a wildfire – their minds don’t go back to what the textbook said. They have the realization they are encountering something inherently dangerous – something that can outrun, overpower and leave them for dead. The next realization they have is that if conditions allow, and the tactics are right, they can stop the fire. And as many residents of the West know – a fire that is stopped cannot destroy their land, their homes, their livelihoods or their lives. For many firefighters, the rush of facing an elemental force in order to protect entire communities is a powerful one – something that brings thousands of us back year after year to face another season.
Fire in Nevada and throughout the Great Basin moves fast – 20,000 acres can burn off in less than seven hours. In order to combat this, we send many resources as possible (and prudent) to each new start. On July 29, 2014, a lightning strike started a fire north of a gold mine in Carlin, Nev., which was dubbed the Bootstrap Fire. The dispatch center received a number of reports about it and immediately sent fire engines from the BLM and Carlin Volunteer department, helicopter crews, an air attack (a plane that circles above the fire providing the Incident Commander – called the I.C.- an aerial perspective, along with direction for other aircraft responding) and single-engine airtankers that drop fire-retardant slurry. In spite of the efforts of the firefighters on scene, the fire grew to a few hundred acres in a few hours. More resources began to show up including a few large bulldozers, inmate crews run by the Nevada Division of Forestry, and resource advisers to ensure firefighting efforts were not going to negatively impact the property we were trying to save.
The primary tactic for fighting fire is to “anchor, flank and pinch” - which means that you don’t attack the flaming front (or head) of the fire. You start where it already burned and work your way around the sides until the fire has nowhere else to go - “pinching” it off – as the military would do in battle. This requires constant communication and coordination between every single individual involved, each unit doing as the I.C. instructs. For the firefighters on the ground, it is hot and smoky. The temperature – not inclusive of the fire – hovers around the mid 90’s during the summer in Northeast Nevada with humidity ranging from the single digits in the day to the mid-to-upper 20 percent range at night. The fire only adds to the heat, and because the humidity is so low sweat evaporates quickly, requiring a constant intake of fluids to overcome heat exhaustion and stroke. The smoke – which smells of burning juniper and grass – can be overpowering. Smoke can make seeing and breathing difficult as it burns the back of your throat and nostrils, causing your eyes to water. The ash in the air adheres to sweat – making everyone look like their faces had been smeared with dark black mascara. Everything makes it hard to hear: from the howling of the wind, the sound of burning sage, the scream of pumps and diesel engines, helicopters and airplanes overhead and the constant barrage of radio traffic. There is generally yelling – not out of confusion or fear – but because everything around us is so loud.
There is also a sense of urgency – to “hook” the fire and keep it from getting bigger. Everyone on the Bootstrap fire had that sense of urgency – and by that night they had a solid handle on the fire, which had grown to 1,393 acres. The next day “mop-up” began. This requires firefighters to cover the entire perimeter of the fire ensuring there is no heat that could rekindle and cause the fire to escape again. This process is dirty and tedious – there is no glamor in mop-up. We generally remove our gloves and run them through the ash to feel for heat (infrared technology is not terribly useful as the ground retains so much heat). We look and smell for the tell-tale signs of heat: smoke, white ash where something had burned and swarms of little bugs that congregate around hot embers. Each step we take sends ash up our pant legs and the hazard of stepping or reaching into a pile of burning embers exists so situational awareness is always important. This process always takes longer than it does to actually stop the fire from spreading. The Bootstrap fire was no exception – and after a few more days the fire had been called “contained and controlled” - meaning that it would not be going anywhere. The resources that had been working 16 hour shifts and sleeping in the dirt were sent back to their respective stations – to get ready for the next one.