By ELISE KAPLAN Albuquerque Journal
SIPAPU, NM (AP) — After 14 days battling wildfires threatening northern New Mexico, Tyler Freeman went for a run on his day off. In the distance he could see the plume of smoke from the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire.
“It’s like that Sunday night feeling where you’re about to go back to work,” Freeman said. “It’s like that every day R&R.”
Freeman, 32, is part of the Carson Interagency Hotshot Crew and lives in Taos County, as do about half of the other crew members. This means friends and families have evacuated and are worried about the smoke. During their three days off, neighbors stop them to ask what will happen next – a question that is impossible to answer.
But it also means that the firefighters know the area very well. A favorite mountain bike trail is now a lifeline.
Hannah Kligman, the team’s assistant team manager, said there is a sense of pride that comes with working on their “home pitch”. The 33-year-old Philadelphia native came to Taos over a decade ago to do field archeology for the Bureau of Land Management, then became interested in learning more about the fire after the Las Conchas fire in 2011.
This is his eighth year as a star.
“We have the skills to do this, to be able to be here and try to protect our forest. It really feels good,” Kligman said. “Especially the manual team – we are a very small piece in the face of nature, but at the same time we really have the skills to help.”
A MOSAIC PATTERN
The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire has exceeded 311,000 acres and is the largest wildfire in state history. It’s also the biggest fire burning in the country right now.
It is about 46% contained and over 3,000 people are working to control it.
The blaze, part of which began with a prescribed burn northwest of Las Vegas in early April, burned more than 700 structures and prompted the evacuation of surrounding towns and communities.
A photographer and Journal reporter spent time with the Carson Interagency Hotshot team as they worked to extinguish hotspots in a mountainous area west of Chacon, at the northern end of the blaze.
The site is not far from the ski and summer resort of Sipapu, which is now behind roadblocks. Firefighters have set up inflatable water tanks along the road which can be used to wet houses and other buildings if the flames start to die down. about half a mile up a steep embankment beside a rutted dirt road accessible to off-road vehicles. Other crews were working nearby.
Smoke wafted through the air and gathered around the peaks and valleys on the not-too-distant horizon. Although some parts of the forest are described by the crew as “destroyed areas” and “a lunar landscape – where it was very hot and growing very strong”, in others the only sign of the fire was ashes mixed with earth. ground.
This creates what is called a mosaic pattern throughout the forest.
“So you have areas that are really burning and cleaning everything up, and then areas that are green, where it will grow back and be fine,” said Renette Saba, public information manager for the incident management team. “But then, as a firefighter, to hold the line, you want it to be solid black so you have safety. And then if it starts to tear, for whatever reason, it won’t push on it and burn all that remaining material.
EVERY DAY IS DIFFERENT
It had been two days since a helicopter had dropped water on the area – which cooled it enough for top crews to come to work. They walk – carrying tools such as shovels and chainsaws, along with their 45-pound backpacks full of gear, snacks and more – and move methodically to put out flames in trees and on the ground.
The speed at which they can work depends on the slope of the terrain and the hardness of the ground as they dig. The few-acre hotspot took them all day to get around, Kligman said.
Crouching down to demonstrate, she plunged her hand into a piece of cinder soil to see if it was still warm. It wasn’t, but if it was, the firefighter would pile cold dirt on it, rubbing it down to extinguish any chance of it reigniting.
Further down the ridge, Freeman and two other crew members called sawyers — because they use chainsaws — had just finished chopping down a tree that was burning from the inside. The project took about 20 minutes of planning to figure out how to fell the tree safely, then about 30 seconds to cut the trunk.
After the tree fell, one section caught fire and sawyers dug a trench around it so it could burn.
Much of what they do is just learning from experience, Kligman said.
“Every day is different,” she said. “You kind of have a toolbox to work on, and over the years you gain different slides of situations. But there is no manual.
While firefighters focus on the big picture and strategize on where to position crews and how to get the best of the fire, ground boots focus on specific tasks. The hotshots have learned to use all of their senses – smelling smoke and touching the earth for heat – as they search for fuel that could ignite.
“We really are a drop in the bucket compared to nature and a (300,000) acre fire,” Kligman said. “Just like working with water, soil, weather, fire itself – often we will do a lot of burning operations in order to contain the fire.”
CONSUMED BY WORK
For hotshot crews, the day starts between 5:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. They get up and break down their camp, packing tents and sleeping bags because they don’t know where they will sleep the next night. Upper level personnel – called aerial – attend a daily briefing and the rest of the crew ensure that all their tools and equipment are ready to go. Then they head to the line, working until about 7 p.m.
No one on the crew has showered since their tour began 11 days ago.
Kligman said most nights they ate dinner around 8 a.m. and then had “free time” to do whatever they needed before bed. For her, it’s about brewing a cup of herbal tea on a compact portable stove, no matter how hot it gets.
Camps are noisy with generators and sounds from other crews, and lights can interfere with a good night’s sleep.
Even asleep, it is difficult to escape from work. Kligman said she had a recurring dream where she was digging a line and the rocks kept getting bigger until they couldn’t move them anymore as the fire burned below.
“That dream played out in different ways,” she said. “Like we’re digging a line and it’s not working, and I’m all stressed out and then I wake up.”
During fire season – usually March through September, although this year crews are cutting short their training to get out into the field – life is pretty much consumed by the day-to-day duties involved in firefighting, leaving little time for anything else.
“It’s a very zen state of mind to just be able to wake up, and you know what your duties are and what your crew duties are…” Kligman said. “On this particular fire, we haven’t had much phone service – you probably won’t speak to loved ones or people at home.”
Kligman is dating another of the best — she said they have a personal rule against talking about the fire on their days off — but many of the crew are single. The lifestyle is not conducive to having a partner, children, pets or even a garden.
“I have a cactus,” one hotshot joked.
The crew still had a few days left in the forest, but Kligman said she had already started daydreaming about the first meal she was going to make at home – kale salad and mashed sweet potatoes. She even made a shopping list.
After eating a nice, healthy meal, Kligman, who ran ultramarathons, said she planned to do long-distance runs and hang out at her “off-the-grid” cabin.
“That’s also why I love our job – because I love hiking and being outdoors,” she adds. “I knew when I was quite young, I could never work a desk job.”