Establishing a "wetline," encountering a cactus, and
going nose-to-nose with the nozzleman
DIEGO COUNTY You
can always see the smoke first the
blacker the smoke, the hotter the fire.
the $%#@ing camera down and get your @&%$ ready," she stammered
impatiently, putting on her gloves.
Canyon Fire was spewing out a column of dense, black smoke. At
the fire's head, flames reached 20 feet into the air. I snapped
one last picture and set down the camera. My crewmember glanced
at me with approval.
dirt road ended in front of a dilapidated house. The smoke hung
over the house a little bit, but the wind was pushing it so that
it was moving less toward and more parallel to us. We were 300
feet, or 3 "sticks" 100
ft equals one "stick" of fire hose from
the fire. Overhead, the first airtanker dropped orange fire retardant
into the darkest column of smoke.
fireline is no place for flaring tempers. As Captain Shoemaker
put it, "This is an exciting job; don't get excited."
firefighter put on one hose pack, amounting to 3 sticks of 1.5-inch
fire hose per pack. The senior firefighter on shift was the designated
nozzleman (person who squirts the water) and crew leader. The
rest of us "pulled hose" (helped carry the charged line) and hauled
hose packs. One person, the clamper, pinches the charged line
with a special hose clamp to shut off the water when attaching
another stick of hose.
the end of our third stick, we were 20 feet shy of the fire front.
The flames were about 10 feet in the air. Circumstances had dictated
that we attempt a hazardous frontal assault on the fire, getting
in front and knocking down its head with water. Our usual alternative,
a flanking maneuver, was not feasible.
nozzleman, seeing that we were short on hose, looked back at us:"Let's
wait for the fire to come to us."
that, get another stick," someone suggested. The next 100 feet
hit the ground.
it," the nozzleman ordered.
on." A firefighter blocked water flow to the nozzle, allowing
the nozzleman to remove the nozzle.
one." Another firefighter screwed the ends of the hoses into one
two," the nozzleman answered, screwing the nozzle onto the new
section of hose.
coming," the clamper shouted, unclamping the hose, allowing the
next section to fill with water.
whole process happened quickly, with different people doing each
task simultaneously. With the water flowing, we lurched forward.
Suddenly, we were engulfed in thick smoke and steam.
pulled down my goggles and facial shroud. Shielded by two layers
of protective clothing, I could feel a sudden increase in temperature.
The goggles had become uncomfortable where they formed a seal
around my eyes. My left elbow, bent and pressed tight against
my shirt, started to burn. Water dripped from my eyes.
hose," someone called out to signal that the stick was fully extended.
had established a "wetline," anchored off the dirt road, spraying
and extinguishing 50 feet of material along the burning perimeter.
As we shut down to add another stick of hose, the fire, still
actively burning 15 feet in front of us, changed direction. A
slight gust of wind caused it to burn back toward us, throwing
black smoke in our direction.
might have to pull back on this one," the nozzleman ordered, directing
everyone to go out the way we came in down
the road and toward the engine. As everyone stepped back, I made
a suggestion, "Why don't we just go into the burn?"
counterintuitive as it seem, the principle is pretty basic: Entering
an area that has already burned provides us with the assurance
that we will not be caught in the active part of the fire. As
they told us in the academy, "Your best safety zone is always
'in the black.'"
nozzleman was infuriated. "How many seasons have you been doing
this?" he screamed.
I said, caught off guard.
you're a #@&*ing dumb&*$% and you don't know what you're doing,"
he yelled in my face. "Listen to the people who have more experience
struck me was that this guy was actually a first-year firefighter.
Though he outranked me at the station, I was his senior in the
fire world. And besides, I was just making a commonsense suggestion.
Nonetheless, I let him have his way.
backed up into the unburned brush, and I just stepped out of the
smoke and into the burn.
got water," the clamper announced. An airtanker whined overhead.
With that, everyone went back to work.
after the fire.
frontal assault was a success. Our wetline had extinguished the
hottest part of the fire. After laying all my hose, I returned
to the engine for a shovel, good for throwing dirt onto burning
"hotspots" to put the fire out.
I hotspotted, the nozzleman passed me on his way to the engine.
We didn't say a word to each other. "Who does this guy think he
is?" I thought to myself.
the fireline is no place for flaring tempers. As Captain Shoemaker
put it, "This is an exciting job; don't get excited."
were tense today because we do know each other, and as firefighters
we must rely upon each other for our own survival.
smoldered as I hotspotted along the line. After a few minutes,
I decided to deliver a water I'd promised to one of my crewmembers.
On my way down the line, I ran into a 20-person handcrew from
the California Department of Corrections. They're the low-budget
backbone of California's wildfire defense. Upon seeing their orange
helmets, I opted to avoid them (and their chainsaw, now in the
lead) by stepping through some unburned brush.
noticed a small cactus. "No big deal, I have two pairs of pants
on," I thought. Seconds later, I was cursing aloud, picking at
the hundreds of cactus spines caught in my right knee.
the same time, a siren sounded. "Oh $%&*," I grumbled, looking
up. A water-dropping helicopter was headed straight for me. "You
gotta be kidding me."
sprawled myself out into the brush, with my head toward the coming
water drop. My knee went back into the cactus. Still bracing myself
for the drop, I felt a wind rush past me. The thack-thack of the
helicopter passed overhead. Still, no water.
looked up to see the helicopter drop a shower of water 60 feet
behind me. "Dammit," I muttered, pawing at my knee again. After
a vain attempt at removing the cactus by hand, I headed back towards
the engine. Each step dug the spines deeper into my knee.
the engine, I changed pants and returned to the line. Seeing that
the hoselay was complete, I started a process known as "mopping
up." You look for smoke rising from the ground and feel for heat
with your hand, then dig up the hotspot and mix it with dirt and
water, fully extinguishing it.
nozzleman, passed me again. "Where's your other glove?" he asked,
angrily. "Right here," I returned, pointing to my front pocket.
"I'm mopping up."
you got an attitude problem," he said, staring at me. "You're
not a team player, you do your own thing, you act like you know
everything. When Captain Loftis gets here..."
it's called cold-trailing," I interrupted. "You take off one glove
and feel for heat, then mop up the hotspots." A hot breeze passed
between us, lifting up a small puff of smoke.
know what it's called." He shook his head. "You're either gonna
do your own thing and ship out of here, or your gonna get your
attitude adjusted and shape up."
I said, my face now red, "You need to calm down."
stared at each other for a moment, then he turned to walk away.
I slammed my shovel into the black ground, breaking it apart.
White smoke wafted up toward me as I leaned over. Overhead, the
thwack-thwack of the chopper faded. I looked up to see
the helicopter high in the sky, heading north.