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From Dixie to Caldor, Firefighters Grapple With Severe Physical and Mental Fatigue

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Close-up of a firefighter's dirty hands and clothing.
Micah Conant, a firefighter with the Tahoe Douglas Fire Department, has been working the Caldor Fire since Sunday, with very little sleep. (Raquel Maria Dillon/KQED)

Lighter winds and cooler temperatures gave firefighters battling the Caldor Fire a slight advantage on Thursday. But the work of containing massive, weeks-long blazes like the Caldor and the even more massive and longer-burning Dixie Fire is backbreaking and it can seem endless for fire crews.

"Since we got here, our first time actually sleeping was yesterday," said Micah Conant, a firefighter with the Tahoe Douglas Fire Department whose crew was working the Caldor Fire near South Lake Tahoe on Wednesday. Conant's crew started working the fire on Sunday. "We did take a couple of, like, 30-minute naps in our vehicles if we had the time to do so."

Mopping up after a fire might sound like the easy part. The flames have passed and the pressure is off at least it was for a short time Wednesday when Conant and the rest of his crew were bent over, pushing axes and their hands through the dirt to check for hot spots a few miles down a winding road from Pioneer Trail, where crews were cutting lines between the fire and South Lake.

The sleep deprivation doesn’t get to firefighters like Conant much he’s 20 years old. Hand crews are a young person’s game. At 36, Jonathan Sanchez is the veteran on the crew and he has advice for his younger crew members.

"Keep yourself hydrated, well-rested and have ... healthy meals. Or just eat constantly."

The crew previously worked the nearby Tamarack Fire, burning in Alpine County, for weeks. Other crews worked the monstrous Dixie Fire before coming to the Caldor. It’s been a grueling season, fighting record-breaking fires in historically dry conditions. Never before in state history had a fire crossed the crest of the Sierra Nevada now the Dixie and Caldor fires both have done it in the span of a month.

Since igniting on Aug. 14, the Caldor Fire has leapt numerous containment lines. Some of them took Sanchez and Conant's crew all day to cut. Crew member Ryan Homer said it's demoralizing.

"It's a big mental game," Homer said. "You kind of just got to stay positive in your head and just push through and know that there's going to be an end eventually. It's terrible to see structures lost always and, you know, those winds almost never cooperate the way we want them to. But we just keep pushing and just do our job, try to focus."


A few miles away up twisty mountain roads, Art Avila was leading a crew of 20 for Calderon Forest Services on Wednesday. They work 21 days in a row, and then drive nine hours back to Boise, Idaho. His youngest firefighter is 18, so sometimes it feels like coaching a sports team he has to keep their spirits up, even when the fire is winning.

"It's going over the line every day, every night," Avila said. "It's burning structures. We had thought we had it contained, but it jumped the line."

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Battalion chiefs and captains get nervous when the firefighting is so relentless and when crews hop from one fire to the next without enough rest. That’s when mistakes and injuries happen.

"Whether you've been here for the duration of this incident or you came from another fire ... fatigue can and will set in," Cal Fire safety officer Jamal Cook told crews in a Wednesday morning briefing on the Caldor Fire. "We all know we still have a long grind ahead of us and we can't stress enough how important it is to pace yourselves."

Avila gives regular pep talks and watches his firefighters closely, looking for signs of exhaustion.

"It’s very hard labor. If there is any fatigue, we'll set them aside and get him some rest or whatever he needs," Avila said. "You know, we don't run them. We don't run our guys down."

The longtime firefighters say this year feels different. The fires seem unstoppable with the usual methods, because the vegetation is so dry and ready to burn. That means they count each structure they can save as a small victory.

Dean Cordrey, a bulldozer operator working the Caldor Fire near South Lake Tahoe, would like to think he played a role in saving some of them.

"Sometimes I sleep out on the line. Sometimes I go get a hotel room. Sometimes I find a safe place to sleep, set out a sleeping bag, go to sleep," he said. "I can conk right out."

For him, the hardest part is being away from his wife and his ranch in the Carmel Valley. But he’s proud to help save people’s homes. He hopes someone would do the same for him.

KQED's David Marks contributed to this story.

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