SIPAPU, N.M. (AP) — After 14 days fighting the fires 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 R&R day.”
Freeman, 32, is on the Carson Interagency Hotshot Crew and lives in Taos County — as do about half of the other crew members. That means friends and families have evacuated, and are worried about the smoke. During their three off days, neighbors will stop them to ask what’s going to happen – a question that’s impossible to answer.
But it also means the firefighters are very familiar with the area. A favorite mountain bike trail is now a contingency line.
Hannah Kligman, the squad boss assistant on the crew, said there’s a feeling of pride that comes with working on their “home turf.” The 33-year-old Philadelphia native came to Taos more than a decade ago doing field archaeology for the Bureau of Land Management, and then became interested in learning about fire after the Las Conchas blaze in 2011.
It’s her eighth year as a hotshot.
“We have the skills to be doing this, to be able to be here and try to protect our home forest. It feels really good,” Kligman said. “Especially the hand crew — we’re a very small piece in the face of nature, but at the same time, we really do have the skills to help.”
A MOSAIC PATTERN
The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire has surpassed 311,000 acres and is the largest wildfire in state history. It is also the largest fire burning in the country right now.
It’s about 46% contained and more than 3,000 personnel are working to control it.
The fire, part of which started as a prescribed burn northwest of Las Vegas in early April, has burned over 700 structures, and led to evacuations of the surrounding towns and communities.
A Journal photographer and reporter spent some time with the Carson Interagency Hotshot Crew as they worked to put out hot spots in a mountainous region west of Chacon, the north edge of the fire.
The site is not far from the Sipapu Ski & Summer Resort, which is now behind road blocks. Firefighters have set up inflatable water tanks along the side of the road that can be used to wet down houses and other buildings if the flames begin to close in. The hotshot crew – some of the most experienced and highly trained of the wildland firefighters – were about half a mile down a steep embankment off the side of a rutted out dirt road accessible by all-terrain vehicles. Other crews were working nearby.
Smoke wafted through the air, and pooled around peaks and valleys on the not-too-distant horizon. Although some parts of the forest are described by the crew as “nuked-out areas” and “a moonscape – where it got really hot and pushed really hard,” in others, the only sign of the fire was ashes mixed with dirt on the ground.
This creates what is called a mosaic pattern throughout the forest.
“So, you’ve got areas that really burn hot and clean everything out, and then areas that are green, where it’s going to regrow and be fine,” said Renette Saba, a public information officer for the incident management team. “But then, as a firefighter, to hold the line, you want it to be black solid so that you’ve got safety. And then, if it does start to rip back down, for whatever reason, it won’t push over that and burn all that leftover material.”
EVERY DAY IS DIFFERENT
It had been two days since a helicopter dropped water on the area – which cooled it down enough so hotshot crews could come in to work. They hike in – carrying such tools as shovels and chainsaws, along with their 45-pound backpacks stuffed with gear, snacks and more – and move methodically to extinguish flames in trees and on the ground.
The speed with which they can work depends on the steepness of the terrain and how hard the ground is as they’re digging. The couple-acre hot spot took them all day to get around, Kligman said.
Squatting down to demonstrate, she stuck her hand into a patch of ashy dirt to see if it was still hot. It wasn’t, but, if it was, the firefighter would pile cold dirt on top of it rubbing it in to extinguish any chance of it relighting.
Further down the ridge, Freeman and two other crew members called sawyers – because they use chainsaws – had just finished cutting down a tree that had been burning from the inside. The project took about 20 minutes of planning to determine how to bring the tree down safely and then about 30 seconds to actually cut through the trunk.
After the tree fell, a section burst into flames and the sawyers dug a trench around it so it could burn out.
A lot 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 off of and, over the years, you gain different slides of situations. But there is no handbook.”
While fire officials focus on the big picture and strategize on where to put crews, and how to gain the upper hand on the blaze, the boots on the ground focus on specific tasks. The hotshots have learned to use all their senses – smelling for smoke and touching the earth searching for warmth – as they look for fuel that could ignite.
“We’re really a drop in the bucket in comparison to nature and a (300,000)-acre fire,” Kligman said. “Just like working with water, soil, the weather, the fire itself – a lot of times, we will do a lot of burning operations in order to contain fire.”
CONSUMED BY WORK
For the hotshot crews, the day starts between 5:30 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’re going to sleep the next night. The upper level staff – called overhead – go to a daily briefing and the rest of the crew make sure all their tools and equipment are ready to go. Then they head out 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 eat dinner around 8 and then get “free time” to do whatever they need to before bed. For her, it’s making a cup of herbal tea on a compact portable stove, no matter how hot it is out.
The camps are noisy with generators and sounds from other crews, and lights can make it hard to sleep well.
Even asleep, its hard to escape the work. Kligman said she has a recurring dream where she’s digging a line and the rocks keep getting bigger and bigger until they can’t move them as the fire burns underneath.
“I’ve had that dream recur in various ways,” she said. “Like we’re digging line and it’s not working, and I’m all stressed out and then I wake up.”
During the fire season – usually from March to September, although, this year, the crews cut their training short to head into the field – life is pretty much consumed by the daily tasks involved in fighting the blaze, leaving little time for anything else.
“It’s a very zen state of mind to be able to just wake up, and you know what your chores are and what your duties are within the crew … ” Kligman said. “On this fire especially, we haven’t had a lot of phone service – you probably won’t talk to your loved ones or people at home.”
Kligman is dating another one of the hotshots – she said they have a personal rule against talking about the fire on their days off – but many on the crew are single. The lifestyle isn’t conducive to having a partner, children, pets, or even a garden.
“I have a cactus,” one hotshot joked.
The crew still had a couple of days left in the forest, but Kligman said she’s already started dreaming about the first meal she’s going to make at home – a kale salad and mashed sweet potatoes. She had even made a grocery list.
After eating a good healthy meal, Kligman, who used to run ultramarathons, said she plans on doing some distance runs and hanging out at her “off-the-grid” cabin.
“Which is also why I enjoy our job – because I like hiking and being outside,” she adds. “I knew when I was pretty young, I could never work a desk job.”