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Firefighters Have Their Work Cut Out For Them With Calif. Wildfires


Hundreds of thousands of acres of California land have been burned by the fires raging across the state. There are now 4,000 firefighters battling the Mendocino Complex Fire alone. Sukey Lewis of member station KQED spent some time with those firefighters on the front lines.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Over radio) Ninety-four, four...

SUKEY LEWIS, BYLINE: Way down a dirt road that winds between California's Lake and Colusa counties, Cal Fire Captain Stevie Long stands in a clearing to brief her strike team.

STEVIE LONG: This is unburned. And these are where your engines are going to be. You're going to come around. We're going to...

LEWIS: She's got a map spread out on the tailgate of her white pickup truck. Long points to a spot along the southeast corner where the fire jumped the containment line, threatening nearby homes and ranches.

LONG: This is where it blew across the line - so across the road here. So we're just cleaning this up.

LEWIS: Long's plan today is to burn out an island of brush that's right next to a 20-foot firebreak cut in the dirt by bulldozers. If the wind picks up and this dry brush suddenly explodes, it could throw embers over the line, and the fire could spread.

LONG: The winds are extremely squirrelly here. I mean, we have a northwest, and then we have a west. It's going to switch to a southwest.

LEWIS: This is all prep for a big operation planned for that night, to burn a 2-mile-long swath of brush down to a nearby lake, hem the wildfire in and give it nowhere else to run.

LONG: So you can see where we're trying to button this up and...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: That whole area.

LONG: Yep.


LONG: And just check that in so this is all secure.

LEWIS: For the next 24 hours, Long's strike team works to shore up this edge of the fire. Then they'll break for 24 hours, go back to base camp, sleep, fix their engines and talk to their families back home.

And who's at home for you?

LONG: I have a wife and a 7-year-old, Peyton K. Murphy (laughter).

LEWIS: Long says it's tough to be away from home for weeks and sometimes months.

LONG: I don't think anybody really realizes - I mean, some of these guys have been going since June 22 with a couple of days off.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Over radio) Twenty-three, 46.

LEWIS: It's grueling work. Firefighters spend much of the morning carrying heavy gear in 90-degree weather through thick underbrush, trying to understand how it will burn.


LEWIS: Finally, mid-afternoon, the strike team is ready to light a controlled burn. Firefighters take drip torches to the manzanita and juniper trees, which go up in big, smoky flashes.


LEWIS: But then the fire peters out.

LONG: So as you can see, it's not going very well. So we're trying to use slope to carry fire up.

LEWIS: The problem is there isn't much underbrush here. It's like trying to start a campfire without kindling. And the same conditions - low wind and cooler temperatures - that have helped the larger effort have stymied Long's plan.

LONG: Well, I think that's a bust.

LEWIS: She'll leave behind a crew to watch this patch of ground to make sure that fire doesn't sweep past their containment efforts. Although things haven't gone exactly to plan today, Long takes that in stride.

And was there ever a moment where you wanted to quit?

LONG: No way. No way. Nope. Not a day in my career that I thought I wanted to quit.

LEWIS: A light wind starts to lift the heavy layer of smoke that's hung in the air all day as the strike team gets ready for night to fall. For NPR News, I'm Sukey Lewis on the front lines of the Mendocino Complex Fire. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sukey Lewis
Sukey Lewis is a criminal justice reporter and host of On Our Watch, a new podcast from NPR and KQED about the shadow world of police discipline. In 2018, she co-founded the California Reporting Project, a coalition of newsrooms across the state focused on obtaining previously sealed internal affairs records from law enforcement. In addition to her reporting on police accountability, Lewis has investigated the bail bonds industry, California's wildfires and the high cost of prison phone calls. Lewis earned a master's degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley.
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