When the call comes, every strike team member knows the next 14 days of their life are going to be long, hot, filthy and extremely dangerous.
Dan Lambert just got back from his latest deployment. The 32-year firefighter at Anaheim’s Station 8 has gotten that call dozens of times in his career, trudging into wildfires in Silverado Canyon, Malibu, Laguna Beach, Camp Pendleton, Yosemite and other areas.
“Last time we went out,” he said, “we got the notification at midnight and we were leaving for Northern California at 2 in the morning.”
The calls have come more often lately, partly because of California’s long drought and partly because Station 8 is one of four in the city equipped to go.
“When the bell goes off, we still respond, but it’s a different process,” Lambert says.
The first thing he does after being notified is text his family, prepping his daughters for 14 days without dad. But it doesn’t stop there.
“My mom is 88,” he says. “I have senior care issues I need to make sure of.”
Fellow firefighter/paramedic Jason Barlow chuckles that the first thing he thinks of when the call comes “is how mad my wife is going to be. We have to plan for 14 days of child care immediately.”
The Orange County strike team always consists of four firefighters with some paramedic capability from two Anaheim stations, plus a rotating group of single units from other cities, which last time included Laguna Beach, Orange and Brea.
Fire agencies designed and designated strike teams as a force to contain and put out wildland fires. They go where regular units and rigs cannot, with four-wheel drive vehicles, known as Type 3 engines, that feature 300-gallon water tanks and smaller hoses of about 3,000 feet.
Collectively, strike teams in California were deployed to nearly 7,000 wildfires last year and have been kept very busy with more than 5,600 wildfires so far this year.
And the rugged conditions demand different tactics. Where water is typically the largest component of fighting a large fire in town, in the back country, strike team members often use nothing more than shovels, axes and chainsaws.
Even more so than urban firefighting, the work is highly stressful and physically grueling.
“You need to not only get there, but perform once you do,” Lambert says. “I rely on experience to get through.
“The terrain is steeper. The angles are severe,” he says. “You have to take more water with you. More food. And you hike in five miles with two packs of 30 pounds each.”
And when the team members are able to step away from the fire lines, it’s a brief opportunity to restock supplies, clean ash and soot off the trucks, eat, and in whatever space they can find, get some much- needed rest.
“The biggest challenge is keeping your body ready for the physical challenge over an extended period of time,” Lambert says.
Barlow agrees. “You’re kind of stuck with new diets, lack of sleep and stress. Your immune system is a little depressed, which mostly slows things down.”
But teamwork is also critical to keeping everyone going. “You have to have a good crew around you for morale. You’re always surrounded by three other people, so when something negative happens, we’re there to share that load.”
Barlow adds that the community of California strike teams makes him “feel like part of something bigger. It doesn’t matter where we are. I think everybody feels that connection. Even in conversation with a San Francisco crew, they’ll say, ‘See you in October.’”
Working in the backcountry mostly limits them from the public interaction they get at home, but when it happens, it’s as much a comfort to them as it is to people they’re helping.
“Doing our job means somebody else’s life is impacted,” Lambert says. “In the briefing, we will know what kind of impact we’ll have that day. We’ll get the assignment to protect that neighborhood and we know their lives are better because of what we accomplished that day. We leave that scene better than when we found it.”
Many people are happy to show their appreciation.
“People on their lawn will wave when we go by. That gives you a little boost,” Lambert says. “You never know who you’re going to contact, but a few kind words from them can go a long way.”
The call will come again soon for the next strike team deployment. Who knows where they will be needed next time?
Lambert thinks about the next call, because it’s never really far from his mind. And he reassures.
“Even though we’re miles from everybody,” he says, “we bring the same commitment as we would if it was our own backyard.”