NORTHERN CALIFORNIA — In the wee hours Friday morning, J.P. Adams was preparing to get some snooze inside a tent pitched near Shasta National Forest. There would be breakfast in the morning, followed by guaranteed adventure for the remainder of the day.
Vacation? An exotic camping trip to the woods?
Not quite. For the next two weeks, Adams and his bunkmates will work anywhere between 14 to 16 hours a day with no breaks. They will face scorching heat, choking smoke and danger at every turn.
These firefighters from around the country will see the wildest time that California has to offer as they attempt to subdue wildfires rampaging across the state.
“That’s just fine with everyone, because it’s what we signed up for,” Adams said, before laying down for perhaps three hours of sleep. “Yeah, there are days you’re tired, hurting and have blisters on your feet from hiking in on a fire with close to 65 pounds of gear and tools, saws, hose, pumps and other things that need to be brought to the fire to make (it) somewhat manageable. But it’s the unknown — it’s the adrenaline rush that pumps through all of our veins that drives us to do what we do.”
By late Friday afternoon, more than 11,000 firefighters were doing battle with 20 active blazes across California. A U.S. Forest Service firefighter died last week battling the fire, which has been blamed on lightning strikes and a historic drought.
New volunteers are still arriving while crews that have been there just kept pushing on.
As of Friday, 20 firefighters from Maine were in California, assigned to the River Complex fire in the Shasta National Forest region, where thousands of acres have already been lost.
“At last check,” Adams said early Friday, “it was approximately 8,500 acres and continues to grow as everywhere everything is brown and dry.
“What we have been assigned to do these past couple days has been stay ahead of the fire and do what they call ‘structure protection,'” Adams said. “That’s when we basically wrap the house in an aluminum foil-style Typar paper to deflect the radiating heat from the advancing fire while other squads pick up brush, cut down trees and create a 30-foot to 50-foot buffer zone around a home to allow (it) a chance to be saved.”
Nobody is making them go. Firefighters like Adams volunteer for the brutal work because they want to help, and because waging war against flames is in their blood.
Back at home, Lewiston Fire Chief Paul Leclair said that when one of his firefighters announces that he wants to head west to help a national effort, he doesn’t discourage him or her. Time off is arranged and other firefighters chip in to help any way they can.
“The entire Fire Department steps up,” Leclair said, “and supports those who deploy by covering shifts. It is a great experience.”
While Adams is away, his wife, Nicki, is back at their Lisbon Falls home, taking care of their children, ages 7, 5, 3 and 1.
“It is never easy having him leave,” Nicki said. “You worry from the moment he gets the call — structure fires or wildland fire out west. The unknown is the hardest part. For anyone that knows my husband, this has always been his passion — helping people in their time of need.”
Nicki said their younger children have only a vague idea of why their father is away. The oldest, though, has a better sense of it.
“Our oldest, Joseph, understands what Dad is doing and gets emotional and excited all at the same time,” she said. He is constantly questioning and curious. The other three just know Daddy will be home soon.
“Again,” Nicki said, “the hardest part is the unknown — and I stay up every night just to get a text that they are returning to base camp.”
Adam can relate to all that. Homesickness is part of the package. It’s one of the sacrifices the firefighters made when they packed their bags and headed west.
“Do I like doing this?” he said. “Absolutely. But at the same time, I miss my wife and four kids more. It’s never easy saying goodbye to them when they drop me of in Augusta to join the rest of the Maine crew. All we can do is stay safe and do the job that needs to be done and come back to our loved ones in one piece.”
Since the beginning of the month, at least 100 firefighters from up and down New England have headed to California to volunteer. Crews come from a variety of agencies, including the Maine Forest Service, New Hampshire Division of Forests and Lands, New England National Forest (White Mountain and Green Mountain national forests), Connecticut State Forestry and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Volunteers are typically scheduled to spend 14 days battling wildfires. While Adams is in California, there won’t be time for sightseeing or trips to Disneyland, but for four or five hours a night, he can at least pretend he’s on a camping trip.
“We sleep in tents on an old ball field,” Adams said, “but we do get a hot meal and a nice shower after every day, so really, I can’t complain.”