Firefighters say battling wildfire takes skill, survival instincts, faith and sense of service | Wildfires

Walter Medina has witnessed a lot of loss. In the past decade or so, the 60-year old firefighter from Lindsey, Calif., Has watched his mother and wife die of cancer, and his father de el of old age.

Loss comes with life and with his job, Medina said Friday afternoon as he watched the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire wreak havoc on forested lands along NM 518 north of Mora, near the Taos County line. Trees and brush went up flames as the wildfire spewed embers, threatening to spark spot fires down in the canyon.

“It’s a matter of time, but we’ll beat it,” Medina said of the blaze as he and fellow firefighters paused to rest in an impromptu staging area across the road from the fire.

Up the road, crews worked to protect houses left behind by people who heeded the call to evacuate as the wildfire lurched north.

When winds whip up to furious speeds of 50 mph or more, Medina said, there’s little choice but to step back and “let it do its thing — and say a prayer.”

Prayers help when it comes to not only battling the fire — which is also pushing southeast toward Pecos — but in supporting the nearly 2,000 firefighters working in a battlefield of fire, smoke and scorched earth, he said.

“You gotta have faith doing this thing,” said Medina, who called himself a kid from the barrio who learned to love reading and learning with the help of a loving aunt.

His father, Joe Medina, was a firefighter, and Walter — who said he was named after broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite — fell into the same line of work early on. He said it was a “calling,” something in his blood from him.

It takes more than skill, survival instincts and experience to get into his business, he said.

“You gotta have God.”

Firefighters also must have a desire to help others.

Walter Medina and other firefighters working along the fire’s edge expressed a sense of service to others, to keeping homes and lives safe — although one joked that maybe they all had “a screw loose somewhere.”

These forest warriors’ personal stories, backgrounds, ages and genders may be different, but their mission is the same: to stop the Monster in the Hills, as some have named it, from continuing its rampage.

A potentially historic event

They are waging war against a potentially historic event.

By Saturday morning, the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire had grown to 279,868 acres. In a couple of days, it is likely to be the largest wildfire in the state’s history, surpassing the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire, which grew to nearly 298,000 acres over about 80 days in 2012. Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon is closing in on that record in half the time.

With containment of 27 percent, there is no immediate end in sight for the 1,924 personnel deployed to battle it.

While conditions were breezy rather than dangerously gusty for the second day in a row, there were red-flag warnings in the forecast later in the week. Combined with low humidity levels, temperatures in the 80s, prolonged extreme drought conditions and abundant fuel for the blaze to consume, officials said it would continue to grow.

A second incident management team had arrived to bolster the effort, and crews planned to battle the fire with a new strategy, dividing it into northern and southern zones. Officials displayed a potential containment plan Saturday that would guide the fire to the western edge of the Cooks Peak burn area — now more than 20 miles from the fire’s northeastern side — and coax it along roads up through Black Lake.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Saturday urged the federal government to cover 100 percent of the costs of the wildfire response and recovery, noting the US Forest Service’s culpability. The initial Hermits Peak Fire began April 6 when high winds kicked up during a prescribed fire and pushed the flames out of control. Calf Canyon sparked nearby days later, and the two fires eventually merged and raced for miles in windy weather.

“New Mexico is utilizing every available asset to combat the advancing fires,” the governor wrote in a letter to President Joe Biden. “However, the ever-increasing costs to save lives and protect New Mexicans’ homes, property, and heritage as these fires continue exceeds the capability of the state. New Mexico’s response to these devastating fires warrants the full resources and support of the federal government.”

The state’s congressional delegates from both parties sent Biden a letter supporting Lujan Grisham’s request for a major disaster declaration.

“Given the severity and life and death nature of this crisis, we urge you to act without delay and approve the State of New Mexico’s request for 100 percent coverage of federal assistance,” they wrote in the joint letter.

‘I can’t let fear take control’

The fire crews’ task is not an easy one. The firefighters work 16-hour shifts 14 days in a row and carry loads weighing up to 40 pounds at times. They sleep in tents set up at spike camps along the way — including one on Mora Public Schools property — and wear the same two or three pairs of shirts, pants and foot gear. They bathe with body wipes.

They often eat on the move, relying on sack lunches consisting of a meat or vegetarian sandwich, a backup peanut butter and jelly sandwich, power bars, fresh fruit, vegetables and high-suggest cookies.

And water. Lots of water.

While no firefighters — or civilians — have been injured in the fire, some of the personnel have suffered from dehydration, officials said.

Federal, state and local firefighters, including volunteer crews, have joined to fight the fire.

Novice federal firefighters start off at $15 an hour, plus overtime, said Ryan Berlin, a spokesman for the incident management team overseeing the effort. They also receive hazard pay — 25 percent of their total wages for every day they work on the fire lines.

It can add up in a season, especially because there’s no time or place to spend money, given their long hours of work.

Fancy Ragland, a 19-year-old Carlsbad native, isn’t in it for the money.

With a near-constant smile on her soot-filled face, Ragland — who graduated from high school at 15 and is working on a double major in college in environmental biology and forestry — was putting out hot spots along NM 434 north of Mora on Friday . She paused to talk.

She and two other crew members tied to a fire engine called Shiloh already had finished their 16-hour shift the night before when a call came around 1 am Friday to push back against the fire’s advance.

“I love the adrenaline rush,” she said. “I get anxious but never 100 percent scared. I can’t let fear take control. When fear takes control, things can go wrong.”

Though she initially wanted to be a US Army medic — and may still pursue that career after college — Ragland’s interest in the environment led her to join Carlsbad firefighter Ronald Thalacker’s engine crew.

The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire is her first rodeo. Thalacker said she has jumped into it like a veteran champ.

Ragland sees fire as both a beautiful necessity and a dangerous element. She added as a Christian, she believes things have to die to be reborn and have a new life.

As with Medina, prayer sustains her. She thanks God no one has been hurt or killed in the fire so far.

A self-proclaimed workaholic, Ragland said she has a month’s worth of undergarments and just two pairs of work clothes to carry her through her 14-day deployment. The Shiloh crew will soon get a three-day break, and then they may return for another 14-day crack at the fire.

Ragland said at times the smoke is so thick she can barely see Thalacker and fellow crew member Vadix Armendarez when they are working just three feet away from her.

Like Medina, Ragland believes the firefighters will be victorious. “It might be out of control at the moment,” she said, surveying the smoldering forest behind her. “But we will win.”

‘We always get ’em’

Down the line, 73-year-old bulldozer operator Keith Darrah, a 40-year veteran firefighter, waited for his marching orders in another makeshift roadside staging area. Originally a logger, Darrah said the transition into firefighting was “a natural thing.”

Darrah, of Mount Shasta, Calif., said it becomes “kind of an art” to predict a fire’s behavior and the best way to attack it. He joins with other bulldozer operators to dig out lines, clearing out dry brush and attempting to corral an advancing fire. He described a military-like strategy of flanking the fire and hemming it in with those bulldozer lines to “cut it off at the head.”

But this blaze, he said is “a large, aggressive one driven by the wind” and hard to predict. While he loves what he does, he said he does not “look forward to the destruction — homes, people who lose those homes, families who lose those homes.”

Darrah said there is something that drives people to take on fires, and there is no greater satisfaction than knowing you have saved someone’s home.

“You know what you’ve done,” he said. “They don’t always know. they’re gone [when we do it]. Then we’re gone.”

Is there fear in the fight?

Darrah paused and looked away.

“I guess, yeah,” he said.

Firefighters go to war frightened, perhaps, but prepared for battle, he added. And even when a curtain of wildfire seems about to close down on his 98,000-pound, 2005 Caterpillar, “you’re prepared, so you don’t have fear.”

This fire, he said, is abetted by drought and high-velocity winds, which have been nearly nonstop. People want answers about when and how the fire will be stopped, but those answers are difficult to come by. Sometimes, he said, “there’s nothing you can do” as the fire rages on.

He was confident it will be extinguished eventually. Noting the wind had died down Friday, he said that buys time for crews to gain ground.

“We’ll get ’em,” he said. “We always get ’em.”

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