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No End In Sight For Overworked California Firefighters

Oct 13, 2017
Originally published on October 13, 2017 6:39 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's spend some time with the people fighting Northern California's wildfires. They've been working on little food and little sleep. They've been straining to limit the damage from fires that have already killed 31 people and destroyed whole neighborhoods. NPR's Eric Westervelt talked with some of the 8,000 people on the fire crews.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Fueled by chewing tobacco, coffee and adrenaline, firefighters here are, in the words of one commander, pushing it to the limits.

BRANDON TOLP: The fire is just jumping around all over the place. And the fire is making a push downhill. So we came down here to regroup and come up with a better plan.

WESTERVELT: Brandon Tolp (ph) a Cal Fire fireman from San Bernardino is at a staging area a mile or so from the Tubb's Fire on the edge of the city of Calistoga, which was evacuated. Ashes raining down, he's got a wad of chew in his mouth. Fuel, he says, when you don't have time to eat.

TOLP: Last time I ate was yesterday at noon, so something passes time.

WESTERVELT: Tolp hasn't slept much either. Same for Sonoma firefighter Stephen Moore (ph). He's gotten only a little shut eye in four days battling the fires, many of which are still barely contained, meaning this could go on well into next week.

STEPHEN MOORE: Yeah, we're pretty exhausted. It's pretty steep terrain. We've been dealing with trying to save the structures. The winds aren't helping. It's throwing a lot of spots, and that's about all we can do is get to the structures as fast as we possibly can and save what we can.

WESTERVELT: How long since you've had a good night's sleep?

MOORE: It's been about 48 hours.

WESTERVELT: Moore is headed for food and sleep, but he expects to be back out on the fire later today. The good news is more help has arrived from across the state and the country. That's evident in the diversity of fire trucks rolling out toward the fires.

We've got a whole bunch of trucks coming out of the Old Faithful geyser staging area to battle this fire on the outskirts of Calistoga. There's U.S. Forest Service going by. There's El Cerrito Fire Department. Here's one from Southern California. Here's St. Helena Fire Department - a whole mix of folks.

Barry Biermann, Cal Fire's deputy commander for Napa, says exhaustion is such a serious factor, they've been pulling people off the fire even if it's against their wishes.

BARRY BIERMANN: We have people that have been on that fire for over three days that don't want to leave their section of line because there's still work to do, there's homes to save and they're very passionate about it.

WESTERVELT: Part of that passion is the fact that many of those fighting the fires live and work here. To the south and west of Calistoga in Sonoma County, an air tanker drops a load of rusty, red fire retardant on a cluster of stubborn fires still burning north of the city of Sonoma.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR TANKER)

WESTERVELT: Joe Buchmeier's a Cal Fire battalion chief who lives just down the hill from where the fire is burning. He says he's caught only a few catnaps since the fires erupted Sunday night.

JOE BUCHMEIER: Everybody is shot. But at the same time, a lot of the people working these fires live here and it's their community, so nobody can really shut down. And they're actually getting forced to shut down. People are saying, you're going to go sleep. So we go sleep and then come back as soon as we can.

WESTERVELT: Buchmeier says when he's finally able, he's looking forward to a long, deep sleep and, he says, a long sip of a cold India pale ale.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Napa County. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.