California is seeing larger and more intense wildfires, putting those on the front lines at greater risk as they attempt to stop raging flames like those from the Dixie Fire that ripped through Greenville, Calif., this week.

“They’re just spreading so fast and so hot. Sometimes we feel like we’re on our heels trying to play catch-up,” said Chris Aragon, a captain with Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency. “It’s not the same behavior as the fires we were used to a decade or more ago.”

Of the 10 largest wildfires ever recorded in California, six were within the past 12 months. The Dixie Fire grew overnight to become the state’s third-largest wildfire on record and the biggest so far this season.

While most people flee from flames, the approximately 7,500 firefighters at Cal Fire run toward them, sometimes inhaling smoky air, collapsing from dehydration and working 96 hours straight.

When Captain Aragon, 36, worked as a seasonal firefighter more than a decade ago, most fires broke out between July and September, he said. The season was long if it ran through Halloween.

But the Camp Fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise in 2018, began in November. And the year before, Captain Aragon traveled to Ventura County to work on the Thomas Fire, which erupted in December.

“We all wondered if we were going to make it home for Christmas,” he said.

Mike Conaty, a Cal Fire captain with the Butte Unit, said the fires his mentors told him about — the wild, once-in-a-lifetime blazes — now happen regularly. “The last five years of my career, we’ve just blown fires like that out of the water,” Captain Conaty said.

The labor required to stop a fire’s path can be grueling. The firefighters alternate 24-hour shifts, typically sleeping in hotel rooms near the blaze instead of returning home.

Captain Conaty once collapsed from dehydration after working. Captain Aragon said he had gone 24 hours without eating, consumed with clearing brush and spraying water.

The men have grown accustomed to discomfort. The flames are often feet, if not inches, away and can feel unbearably hot. The smell of smoke lingers on their skin for days.

Firefighters wear helmets but not fitted masks, which would impede their breathing and slow them down, Captain Aragon said. So instead, they inhale smoke.

“On my first season, I was coughing up black stuff for a week or so,” he said.

Captain Conaty returned home last week from an 11-day stint fighting the Dixie Fire. He said that while his 9-year-old son was excited to see him, his 11-year-old gave him an attitude — the coping mechanism he has developed for dealing with his father being away.

“You’re kind of burning the candle at both ends most of the time,” Captain Conaty said. “You can be as prepared as you want and as used to it as you think you are, and it’s still a strain on the family.”


Source From Nytimes

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