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    A day in the life of a Cal Guard wildfire fighter

    A day in the life of a Cal Guard wildfire fighter

    Photo By Airman 1st Class Madeleine Richards | California Army National Guard Soldiers working as hand crew members on the Lodge Fire...... read more read more



    Story by Airman 1st Class Madeleine Richards 

    146 Airlift Wing, California Air National Guard

    YREKA, Calif. - I was privileged this week to witness a day in the life of the California National Guardsmen called to duty to support Cal Fire as wildfires raged across Northern California. The following is my perspective — gained through the lens of my camera and through my eyes as an Airman who just recently joined the Guard. I have spent the last two days out with the fire camp in Yreka, California, trying to capture what all these hard working men and women do day to day.

    One of the basic aspects of being a member of the National Guard is an understanding that when your service is needed, it becomes the priority. When the fires in California started, Guard members from units all over California came together to answer the call. After all, that is what the National Guard is known for — always ready, always there.

    Many of these Soldiers had only a day’s notice to get everything together and head out to start their training to work on the fire crews. What I thought was interesting was that their jobs in the Guard weren’t necessarily fire hand crew workers. Truth is, quite the opposite. When they enlisted as finance or communications specialists, as many of them who were activated to these fires did, they never imagined they’d be helping out with one of California’s biggest fires, right on the line side by side with Cal Fire firefighters.

    Spc. Eunjin Lee said she really had to get back to her roots and priorities and remember that we are all Soldiers first. “I just have to set my official job title aside right now and be a Soldier and help out where I am needed,” she said.

    We drove onto the site where the base camp was set up. Tents, trailers and various fire trucks were all arranged in a logical fashion like a small city. People were walking around the camp in the various uniforms of all the cooperating agencies who came together to fight the fires, and of course, National Guard uniforms were there as well. So many different Guard professions came together to fight the fires, including truck drivers, medics, crew leads, fuelers, and chaplains, just to name a few.

    The hand crews were who I spent most of my time with, following their daily routine. Wake up call was at 4 a.m., followed by a walk to a big tent for a nice hot cooked breakfast. We then loaded ourselves onto trucks with our gear, which was a large pack that included a helmet, fire blanket, water bottles, gloves, an LED light and other equipment. When driving was no longer possible the crews got off the trucks and continued to hike anywhere from two to 10 miles through the woods and then worked as a team creating and improving fire lines. This entailed clearing the forest of flammable materials, raking over hot spots and chopping down limbs and trees that could potentially fuel the wildfires. The fire lines are built around a wildfire to contain it. The crew was provided with plenty of water throughout their day and a large sack lunch that literally weighed five pounds.

    When the day’s work was done after a 12-hour shift, they loaded back up into the trucks and headed back to the camp, eager take a hot shower, do laundry, and, of course, have a good hot meal. All of the meals were provided by Cal Fire and the crews ate under large tents with all the other personnel there working the fires.

    “The accommodations here are excellent, in my opinion,” said Sgt. Maj. Daniel Parrish. “Definitely outstanding for what we need and the food quality is amazing.”

    I got the chance to see what the Soldiers were up to after they wound down and had time to relax before they went to sleep. Their living area was in a large open building where cots were arranged in between small waist-high partitions. Soldiers had time to take part in a few intense card games, talk on their phones to loved ones or listen to music — all trying to make the best of it by hanging out with their fellow crew members.

    "We have about eight hours of sleep available to us but after talking to family and playing a few card games it ends up being less sometimes," said Spc. Nazario Gonzalez.

    This was the first time many of the Soldiers from Hand Crew 9 had worked a fire so they weren’t exactly sure what to expect coming into this.

    Pfc. Devion Burns expressed that the support they get from people in the community has been very fulfilling. “People will be driving by and wave, or they will come up to you and say thank you. Knowing that we are helping them out feels good,” he said.

    Staff Sgt. David Weise had previously worked fires. He explained that he was glad to return and fight the fires again with his acquired skill level. “When I first came in [last fire season] a lot of people worked hard to train me, so now I can come back to help train the new soldiers coming in, and can set an example.”

    When I asked the Soldiers how their families felt about them being out on the fires, the most common responses were “proud” and “worried.” They should be proud. These Soldiers worked so hard to do something bigger than themselves. They also committed all of their time and energy into it until the fires were under control. As far as family members being worried, that is completely understandable, too. But Cal Fire firefighters were working alongside and ensured that the mission was being completed in the safest way possible.

    During my visit with the hand crews the Soldiers had been out there for more than two weeks and did not have an exact date on when they would be returning back to their normal lives. Despite 15-plus hour days, being away from families, putting their civilian jobs on hold and countless other sacrifices, they continued to keep their morale up and stay positive. There was a huge sense of family within the crews and having each other to stay positive helped a lot, they told me.

    "The crews do everything together. They eat together, work together, PT together. Each crew is like a family,” said Parrish. "Most importantly I have a 15-year-old son and he is just really proud. He thinks I'm the coolest dad ever."



    Date Taken: 08.19.2014
    Date Posted: 08.19.2014 19:49
    Story ID: 139852

    Web Views: 193
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