For the last week, firefighters have been working hard to beat the wildfires. KPBS reporter Nicole Lozare spent some time with them on the front lines.
Ashley Nortgart: This is the most exciting job you’ll ever have. I mean, this is definitely my passion.
Meet Ashley Nortgart. Twenty-four years old and San Diego’s first line of defense against the wildfires of 2007.
Nortgart: Firefighting, there’s so many things about it and the thing is you’re always learning. You never stop.
In the last week, firefighters from across the state scrambled to help San Diego. Captain Vince Pena and his crew came down from Santa Clara to protect homes in the Rice Fire.
Pena: Soon as we got here, we went to work. We worked until about three in the morning then we went and got some sleep. Got up about six or seven, had some breakfast, and came back out, and worked all day on Monday and into Tuesday. We got a day off Tuesday and we’re back out here today.
In their time here, Pena and his crew have slept little, gotten lost, and stared down blazes that couldn’t always be tamed.
Pena: It’s hard. It’s hard. You’re thinking about people who have put their whole lives into these homes. The hardest part is thinking about the children. How do you cope? Well, I think the way we cope is we try to make a difference and pat ourselves on the back in the ones that we save.
At its hardest, the job requires them to make difficult decisions. Emotions must be pushed aside for logic to take over.
Pena: You have to look at the homes and you have to triage them, just like you would a medical patient. If you had more than one medical patient, you have to pick the one that’s most survivable. That’s what we do. We try to pick the home that is more survivable. The one with the most defensible space is the one we’re going to pick and make our stand. What is a defensible space? A defensible space is something where the homeowner has taken it upon themselves to create a green area around their house. Limited the amount of flammable vegetation. Trimmed the trees back from their house. A home that has maybe stucco siding as opposed to wood siding. Tile roof as opposed to wood.
To get it — to make those decisions quickly, stay alive and still beat a fire isn’t an overnight achievement.
Nortgart: We drill and we train all the time for stuff like this. To keep our adrenalin up. So when we actually see something you don’t get the deer in headlights kind of thing. Because we drill so well. But you definitely get the added urgency.
There are some things they can’t control. In wildfire situations, one area becomes priority number one. That fire will get the air tankers and all the big resources. On this particular night, Ashley Nortgart’s crew is defending nine homes on Palomar Mountain. They are number three on the priority list for North County.
For two days now, the fire keeps peeking over the hill. They started a control burn to extinguish what they call fuels — for example, a dry bush that can speed up a fire. They can beat the fire if it’s on their terms.
At the end of a 24-hour-shift, their lips are parched, their feet with blisters and their bodies sore. But there’s also a sense of thankfulness that each crew member is safe.
Nortgart: My biggest fear as a firefighter is getting burned over probably. Yeah. The way to prevent that is things that we all know, you gotta stay aware you gotta work with your crew and you gotta watch everyone’s back. And that’s what we try to do all the time. That’s how we stave off that fear.
This night, Ashley Nortgart and her crew save the home and stay alive.
Nicole Lozare, KPBS News.