HOMETOWN HEROES: Local firefighters cope with busiest fire season in decades

Atascadero Station One firefighters made the time to talk to Atascadero News about the fires they have been dispatched to, both locally and far from home, and shared their thoughts on what challenges they’ve been facing.

“I don’t recall it being this busy locally within our county in 25 years,” Scott Hallett, Atascadero Station Fire Captain, said about the initial and extended attack activity, which he said triggered fatigue factors this past weekend. Hallett was thinking back on the Tower Fire on Cuesta Grade, the Chalk Fire here in town, and the Stone Fire east of Santa Margarita, three incidents which took up much of the Atascadero station’s resources. The fire captain’s firefighters have been returning to their station to rest after fires, only to be sent out again to the next blaze.

A new fire hit Parkfield Road and Highway 198 on July 17. The Park Fire, an actively burning offshoot of the Garza fire, is 17 percent contained as of Wednesday.

“We’ve had some significant fire seasons statewide for a number of consecutive years now… but these are just a multitude of small, medium, and large incidents, and I haven’t seen that in my career,” Hallett said, predicting that it’s only going to get worse, unless a monsoon rolls in with some wet weather, which is unlikely.

Chris Robinson, Atascadero resident and Station One’s Engineer and Paramedic, has recently been fighting the Alamo Fire.

“Honestly, you do this for a while and you kind of see the trends,” he said. “We knew that this year was probably going to be busy as far as initial attack goes with the grass crop.”

Robinson explained that because of the rains this winter the area has somewhat of an abnormal grass crop, so the fires behave differently, unlike what we have seen in the past years.

“I don’t think it’s any more concerning living in the community for us, because we kind of know the routine, but there’s always that factor, of hey, when we get fires we need to jump on them quick, because people are drawn down and we don’t know how many resources we’re going to get.”

Robinson said supervisors are emphasising hydration and rest, things that are not always guaranteed, especially for hometown firefighters who are backfilling, drawn down throughout the state and going from one fire to the next.

“Last Saturday we had Hose Evolution Training for 2 in the afternoon, but we bypassed the 110 degree training, because if you go out and you do that, and you spent your crew’s energy, and then you have that fire at four in the afternoon like we did, you’ve already minimized your ability. You’re already losing the hydration race,” Robinson said.

According to Robinson, being hydrated is only part of coping with fatigue. Depending on the heat levels, the crews need to pace themselves. It’s not uncommon for a firefighter to be on the line, vomiting off to the side due to physical exertion. Team members need to watch each other, and monitor one another from the top down. If someone is tired, another will fill in to relieve their burden. They need to take breaks for food and hydration.

Robinson said he eats enough in one sitting to get through 12 or 24-hour shifts. Lunch consists of a sack lunch in a big, brown bag with a sandwich, a couple of Uncrustables, snacks such as trail mix, jerky, or protein bar, and a powdered drink mix. He said the fire department put much research into the meals, and sometimes he has to double-up to power-up.

Robinson said smoke is the biggest danger. It can be choking at times. Their eyes burn. Their nose starts to run. He relies on a couple of Advil in the morning, a cup of coffee and a whole lot of water.

Hallett said the smoke’s carbon monoxide output gives him raging headaches.

“For a lack of a better term, it’s like getting a hangover, that’s what it feels like,” he said, mentioning studies that prove the cumulative effect of smoke intake is compromised cognitive ability. He said because of the cancer increase within the firefighting community, his team is encouraged to put in a strenuous workout after working a fire.

“Got to get those toxins out of your body, get a good sweat,” he said, and the whole crew laughed that Colette Layton, Firefighter/EMT, would be the one to come back and put in a cardio workout after the craziness of the fires.

Layton, a San Luis Obispo native who has worked for the Atascadero Fire Department for about two years, said the busy fire season is all she knows, so she never makes definitive plans with friends and family. She was out in downtown San Luis Obispo with her sisters and nieces, visiting from Canada when she received a call about the Chalk Fire in Atascadero.

“So I drove right home, got my stuff, came to the station,” she said. “The next day I was down at the Alamo fire. It’s just how it happens. There’s always a caveat to plans I commit to.”

If Hallett’s firefighters are stationed in base camps in low-lying areas where smoke has the tendency to settle in, Hallett tries to bring them out of the smoke for at least a couple hours on the long shifts so their bodies can metabolize the smoke.

“I can attest to it,” Tom Peterson, Atascadero’s Fire Marshall agreed. “Days after, when you’re out on a fire for a couple weeks, come home a couple days, shower and whatnot, you can still smell the off-gassing coming out of your pores.”

Peterson likens the job to professional athletes to some degree, though many of the athletes retire after their prime, he said. At age 53, he said his body is trying to keep up after 27 years of firefighting, and he’s especially cognisant of the age of firefighters. His personal physical challenge is getting a cold, which often leads to bronchitis. He mentioned seeing firefighters out on the line, such as the Chalk Fire, who he worries may be battling the physical challenges that come with age, and a massive amount of heat.

One factor helping the Atascadero firefighters with the heat factor is a switch to single layer, lightweight, fire-resistant clothing. A number of agencies have moved to single layering due to the fact that more firefighters are injured from heat exhaustion than actual burns. Atascadero firefighters said the material helps them be more agile. They slip and fall less, and can work for longer periods of time.

Teams try their best to give local firefighters enough rest in the heat, but according to Robinson, “You really, ultimately, end up working about a 16-hour day.”

“I was released after 12 hours on the Hill Fire. But when on 24s, like the Alamo fire, if you get a chance to bed down while you’re out there you sleep in the dirt or in the hose bed of an engine,” he said.

When Robinson was out on the line, on the station’s four-wheel drive ambulance as a medical standby, he’d sleep an hour or two whenever he could find a window.

“You lay in the back or on the bench or wherever you can,” he said. “It’s definitely not quality sleep because you are constantly listening to radio traffic. You can never shut off completely because you are available for those 24 hours.”

Robinson added that the ambulance may be one thing, but when firefighters on an engine company first enter an incident the situation is dynamic and may not follow the NWCG guidelines that follow a two-to-one work/rest ratio.

“You might have half-an-hour to eat lunch or take a cat nap,” he said. “There’s no pulling out cots, there’s no pulling out sleeping bags. We’re wearing our yellows and boots and pants and you lay down in the dirt and take a break.”

As far as what kind of work our hometown heroes have ahead, the predictions are, at best, unpredictable. Atascadero firefighters keep watching the fuel moistures, weather factors, heat waves and wind events. They are always studying a mass amount of data.

“When someone asks us how this fire season is going to be we say, ‘Well, we’ll tell you at the end,” said  Robinson, who is looking forward to marrying his fiancé this October. The fire season isn’t expected to end until at least December, but Robinson said his schedule is blocked out for his wedding.

“Our family is our support. They’re what keeps us going,” he said. “My fiancé at home. Everyone has a family one way, shape, or another. They put up with us being gone long periods of time. We are not the only ones who go through trials and tribulations with this. They are also struggling with maintaining households and dealing with kids or pets or whatever is going on back home. Families deserve as much appreciation as we do.”

The firefighters at Atascadero station also expressed appreciation for the local efforts in fire safety.

“We want to thank people for doing their weed abatement,” said Fire Chief and Paramedic Casey Bryson. He said the biggest threat to this region has been easily ignitable grasses. Reducing the threat of grasses, brush, and trees is the best thing the community can do to prevent fires in Atascadero, he said. Recently the team drove by a house on their way to the Stone Fire and witnessed a community member mowing their property at 3 p.m. These are the people they would like to be more proactive in preventing fires, and hope people will abide by the signs posted around town that warn not to mow after 10 a.m. Another thing that the local team asks is that address signs be visible, since navigation isn’t always available in remote areas.

The Atascadero Fire Department team is working hard to keep their mental and physical fitness up for the tasks ahead.

“I think the best thing for all of us, when we have these assignments, is to do good work, meaningful hard work, so that the end goal of containing a fire and putting it to bed is done so you can get home,” Robinson said. “That’s what we’re here for. Make a difference and get back home.”

You may contact Reporter Beth Giuffre at [email protected]

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