JULIAN, Calif. – It was a rare lull in the storm, and the crew of Engine 31 took advantage after seven hard days on the fire line. Parked on a highway shoulder, awaiting orders, they swapped stories, snacked — even caught a few moments of coveted sleep.
The break didn't last long. A team leader arrived with a new assignment: Head for the mountain community of Julian and save what you can. As crewman Damien Sanchez put it, it was time to do "what we live for."
A short while later they were back before the flames, fighting to save homes and dreams — and get a leg up on the monster beating them down.
Like the thousands of other firefighters working around the clock to battle the California wildfires, the four men and woman who make up the crew of U.S. Forest Service Engine 31 are exhausted and frustrated but also determined.
They were dispatched from their home base at the Angeles National Forest (search) last Wednesday to help fight a blaze at Camp Pendleton (search). That was before a half-dozen more fires ignited across Southern California, before tens of thousands were evacuated, before so many lives had been lost and homes destroyed.
They have been in the mountains surrounding San Diego ever since, putting in 16-hour days while working to save several hundred structures, but also finding dozens more that weren't able to be salvaged.
"This is some of the most stressful firefighting I've done," said Sanchez, 25, one of the veterans of the group with seven years' experience. Earlier in the week, he and his crew hopscotched from house to house in one mountain community, scurrying to remove debris and cut down trees that are gasoline to a fire. But as soon as they left one house to start work on another, flames would roar by.
"It was more than I expected. I thought we'd have a half-hour to work on a house. We had about five minutes," Sanchez said. "We just didn't have any time because of the winds."
They were back at it before sunup Tuesday, helping with a burnout operation intended to rob an oncoming blaze of more fuel. Then, it was off to Julian.
The rig followed a caravan of engines and brush trucks down a gravel road just south of the historic gold mining community of 300 people, famous for its apple trees and beautiful vistas of the Cuyamaca (search) mountains.
Engine 31 pulled in the drive of a newly built home with tan siding and a garden hose draped over its roof, dripping water down onto the back porch. Just beyond, flames crept toward the house from the south. Next door, a neighbor's wood pile was already engulfed.
The crew unloaded and took a quick assessment of the property: Not much vegetation close to the house, no visible fuels that would put the home at risk. As one of them popped open the circuit breaker to ensure the power was off, Tracy McGuff, the 35-year-old engine captain, made a decision.
"Guys, this house is looking good," she said. "I think we should go somewhere else."
They headed south one block. Next stop: 4812 Glenside Road, a concrete and stucco house surrounded by towering oak trees, a wood picnic table and flowerpots filled with roses and marigolds, their petals dusted with ash.
But in these firefighters' eyes, such home comforts are little more than hazards. A wood lattice propped to the side of the house was quickly discarded, along with a vine clinging to the wall. As one crewman took a chain saw to shrubs, Sanchez and another firefighter scrambled up a ladder to a balcony.
"Move that stuff. That stuff will just catch," Sanchez ordered, pointing to a row of bamboo shades draped around the second-story patio. "This stuff can catch fire, too," he muttered, hoisting a wicker love seat over the railing and tossing it away from the house.
Retrieving a pocket knife, he sliced down the shades and threw them down alongside the love seat.
Suddenly, a loud boom sounded just to the south, and towering red flames shot into the sky.
"Looks like a propane tank," said Sanchez, not even rattled.
With the house secured, the crew turned its attention to the brush surrounding it. Waist-high flames were eating through the tender-dry fuel, creeping ever closer to the property they were determined to keep standing. Sanchez backed the truck in closer, then started unraveling hose.
"Pump it up!" shouted McGuff, working to douse the flames. Then she explained: "We're not trying to contain the fire right now. We're just trying to stop if from hitting the structure."
That has been the overriding strategy this week. With the blazes burning so intensely and fast, direct attacks have been almost impossible — forcing crews to focus on defending homes rather than fighting the fire.
"It's the fastest-moving fire I've ever seen. It's huge," said crew member Steve Pera, 22. "We just let the horses out at one place and said, `Good luck, guys."'
Despite the dozens of homes he has seen burned to the ground, Pera takes comfort knowing he's also helped rescue a few. That, he said, "is the coolest feeling."
After about 45 minutes, the crew feels confident this house is one that will make it. After cutting a quick line in the brush, they knocked down a few remaining flames. Then McGuff rounded up her squad, new orders already in hand. Scrambling back in their rig, Engine 31 took off again into the mountain.
As they headed out, a few embers still burned in the brush. But in this neighborhood it was a job well done. This time, at least, more homes were saved than lost.