Shelby: Wildfires have burned a lot of land and burned through a lot of money this summer. In fact, the U.S. has spent more than $1 billion battling blazes. So, what exactly does it take to fight fires? Maggie Rulli traveled to California to find out.
Maggie: When the alarms go off, I found out that the Ross Valley firefighters of northern California have only a few minutes to get dressed and spring into action. Without knowing exactly what they will face on the scene, it is crucial that they are trained for everything.
One of the biggest concerns in the western part of the United States, especially in California, are wildfires. Unseasonably high temperatures, heavy winds, and lots of dry brush sparked the wildfire season much earlier this year. The result? Thousands of charred acres, even before the summer months had officially began.
Captain Craig Carroll: It puts us on alert that we need to train and we need to be safe and we need to train our younger personnel coming up. Safety is the number one element for any firefighter.
Maggie: Eighteen-year-old Max Hassen is hoping to get a leg up on his training. He joined the Ross Valley Explorers Program over a year ago, which teaches high schoolers what it takes to become a firefighter.
Max Hassan: We cover everything, whether it’s basic medical stuff, structure firefighting, hydrants, wildland stuff. It’s just the basic platform of the fire service, and that’s what this program is about, is gaining that knowledge.
Maggie: And today’s lesson? How to properly contain a structure fire.
Max: A structure fire is kind of like a house, a building. You can actually get a structure fire from a wildland fire if all of the environment is on fire in your backyard.
Sid Jamotte: This pennant controls the fires. This is our front burner right here.
Maggie: At the flick of a switch, this trailer can be set ablaze, a simulation of what it is like to enter a burning building.
So, of course, I suited up to show them just how well a news reporter could handle the heat.
Sid: Just to let you know, in about ten minutes, hair and make up are going to be ruined!
Maggie: Totally going to be worth it.
Sid Jamotte, one of the advisors for the program and a former Explorer himself, briefed me on my safety equipment.
Sid: This is our pass device. If I stop moving, about 18 seconds, this will start to alert. You hear it ramping up. So, if I move, it resets.
This is called a spiro hatch. So, when this is on your head, it’s all tightened down. When you press this in, you’ll start breathing.
Maggie: How important is this piece of equipment for your work?
Sid: This is our lifesaver right here. This is all we rely on. This is what’s going to keep us alive in these fires.
Maggie: With that knowledge and all of my gear strapped on, the Explorers and I were ready to tackle the trailer.
Max: Water coming!
Maggie: Being in there like that with the fire on top of you, the heat alone is crazy. It gives you a whole other type of appreciation for fire, and the heat is definitely something you hear about but can’t feel until you are inside the fire like that.
Explorer: It’s pretty physically demanding. I’ve definitely learned a lot from it – I’m still learning. I learn something new every day.
Maggie: But even the most well-trained firefighters know there is no way to prepare for all the dangers that come up in the field. In July, a wildfire sparked by lightning claimed the lives of nineteen specialized firefighters in Yarnell, Arizona. The team, known as Hotshots, were specifically trained to handle the nation’s fiercest wildfires. Further investigation showed that the winds suddenly shifted the fire’s direction, causing it to hook around and cut off access to the ranch that was their safety zone.
The deaths of the Granite Mountain Hotshots marked the nations biggest loss of firefighters in a wildfire in eighty years. And yet, despite the dangers, these Explorers continue to dedicate hours throughout the week to make sure one day they too can serve on the frontline.
You come in here at 9 a.m. on a weekend morning to be a part of the Explorers Program. I mean, where do you come up with that dedication?
Scott Carlson: When you’re saving someone’s life, when it’s a life or death situation, you want to know what you’re doing. I want to be the most prepared I can be, so when I get out in the field, I’m saving as many people as I can. So, I mean, it’s almost…having that knowledge, knowing that I’m going to use this to save someone’s life kind of puts that pressure on you. You know, like, ‘Alright. I need to nail this stuff down right now.’
Maggie: Maggie Rulli, Channel One News.
Shelby: Thanks, Maggie. Looks like we have some firefighting heroes in the making.