Davis firefighters — from left, Blas Ayala, Luis Parrilla and Jamie Mills — unpack their gear upon their return last week from the front lines of the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park. Wayne Tilcock/Enterprise photo

Crime, Fire + Courts

Rim Fire work exhausting, but rewarding, for Davis strike team

By From page A1 | September 13, 2013

The call for aid came on Aug. 27, days into what would soon become the third-largest wildfire in California history.
Within hours, the Davis Fire Department strike team was on the scene of the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, where they would spend the next 10 days assigned to the operations division, protecting evacuated homes and other structures at the Hodgdon Meadow campground, near the park’s Highway 120 entrance.
“If and when the fire got to the entrance, we as a group would have the responsibility to protect that area,” Capt. Joe Tenney — who served on the strike team with fellow firefighters Blas Ayala, Jamie Mills and Luis Parrilla — recalled in an interview this week.
Their days began at 5 a.m. at a remote base camp, where they slept in trailers outfitted with as many as 50 cots that accommodated fire crews from across the country — even Alaska and Hawaii — who had come to help battle the blaze.
After their morning briefings, the crew headed out to their assigned location, where they would spend the next 12 hours — if not longer — clearing fire lines of brush, pine needles and other fuel, laying hose line in the event of the fire’s approach, and observing backfires to ensure that they wouldn’t jump the roadway.
“There’s an amazing amount of work that goes into these things,” said Tenney, who estimated that as many as 6,000 firefighters were assigned to the blaze during their time there. With some assignments, “you may never see the fire all day long. Other times you’re right in the middle of it.”
Tenney said the Rim Fire did make its way toward the Davis crew at one point, making its way down a hillside toward the Hodgdon Meadow buildings. It also had burned around their assigned base camp prior to their arrival, leaving the area thick with smoke.
And with the fire came the “snags” — dead or dying trees that were deliberately toppled for safety’s sake by crews known as “fallers.” Some of the trees measured as much as four to five feet in diameter.
“You could hear them all day long,” Tenney said. “You’d hear that crack, snap of the trunk, then you’d hear that crackle till it falls. It shakes the ground, if you’re close enough.”
When their shifts ended, the crew returned to base camp to refuel their engine, grab dinner and take much-needed showers, sometimes not getting to sleep until midnight.
“And then you do it all over again,” Tenney said.
But the work was rewarding, Tenney added, particularly when members of the community showed their appreciation to the visiting fire crews.
“The public is always very generous,” he said. “We don’t necessarily like the attention, but we appreciate it a lot.”
As of Thursday, the Rim Fire had burned 255,560 acres, or about 399 square miles, and was 80 percent contained, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Meanwhile, another Davis Fire Department strike team has been dispatched to another California wildfire — the Clover fire in Shasta County, which so far has destroyed 68 homes and is being blamed for one fatality.
— Reach Lauren Keene at [email protected] or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenkeene

Lauren Keene

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