Armed with weed whackers, a band of roadside workers thrashed at wispy thickets of arid grass. Overhead, the faded green Cold Spring Canyon Arch Bridge soared over the tree-filled ravine.
A flick of a cigarette butt or car backfire could set the dry grass ablaze, sparking a fire that could last for days, weeks, months.
Most wildland fires start along roadsides like the ones twisting throughout the back country off Highway 154, where tree limbs and dense chaparral shroud homes and businesses.
As California enters the fourth year of a historic drought, firefighters are bracing for a fierce wildfire season, with dry conditions creating hotter burning, faster moving fires. Eliminating dry brush could cut back the potential for a catastrophic blaze.
So the group of 26 Santa Barbara County firefighters known simply as Hand Crew 1-1 and Hand Crew 1-2, who most days look more like a group of elite landscapers, are taking tools to earth and soil.
It’s not the romanticized image of a firefighter played out on television. Few dash into burning buildings. They don’t man hoses to battle flames. There’s no station house — not even a pole to slide down.
The crew bosses admit little glamour is involved.
Instead, when wildland fires break out, hand crews go places not easily accessible to television cameras. Not easily accessible by the hand crews even, who often hike for miles lugging 50-pound backpacks and heavy tools before reaching the front lines of the fire, where their work begins.
The crew doesn’t go out with a fire engine, hoses, extinguishers, or any other water, except to drink. It’s not uncommon during long-lasting blazes – known as campaign fires – for crews to spend days or weeks on assignment.
During the Zaca Fire in 2007, hand crews stayed on duty for 56 days, working 14-day shifts they refer to as Coyote Operations. During those assignments, they traverse tough terrain, sleep under the stars not far from flames and eat MREs, or as crew boss Brent Manfred calls it, “just the stuff that keeps us moving.”
For all this, crew members are paid an hourly wage of about $15 with limited benefits.
LESSONS LEARNED IN YARNELL
Hand crews have been gaining more recognition recently, but for reasons none are excited about.
Crew member John Lister opened up his backpack, revealing six quarts of water, road flares, long sleeves he refers to as “warmies,” a sharpening tool, and strapped to the bottom, a fire shelter that every crew member dreads deploying.
The foil blanket is intended as a last defense to shield crewmembers from radiant heat. A semblance of comfort. A final stand against a fire they cannot contain when everything goes wrong.
It’s the same shelter that 19 hand crew members from the elite Granite Mountain Hotshots deployed about two years ago during the Yarnell Hill Fire in Prescott, Arizona, when their escape route was cut off and the fire overtook them.
The blaze hits home for the firefighters. One of the hotshots, 26-year old Sean Misner, hailed from the Santa Ynez Valley.
“Yarnell creates discussion,” Manfred said. “It’s an unfortunate tragedy, but we try to turn it into a learning point.”
DISMEMBERED, DISBANDED AND DISCARDED
The hand crews that spend their off-days clearing roadsides of brush, building preventative fire lines protecting homes in high-risk regions and marching into the front lines of fires have a history equally challenging.
Beleaguered by budget cuts, the crews have disbanded three times since they were founded in 1973, most recently in 2011. It wasn’t until July 2014 that they were rehired when the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors approved their budget.
“They took a giant leap forward in protecting the residents of Santa Barbara County,” Santa Barbara County Fire Department Public Information Officer Mike Eliason said.
Still, crewmembers’ confidence has been shaken by years of cuts, wary that their crew could be axed again.
“It’s always a possibility,” Manfred said.
SIMPLE IN THEORY, TOUGH IN EXECUTION
Simplicity marks most aspects of their assignment. They work out of a camp sequestered in the southern reaches of Cachuma Lake given to them as a trade-off for bucking trees and clearing trails.
A single spigot shooting up from the ground, for months, was their only water source. They’ve since been gifted a shipping container converted into a shower room.
During high fire season and when on-call, most firefighters sleep outside on a small swath of grass, or on picnic tables. Four bunks purchased for the crew have yet to be used.
Like the simplicity that marks their camp, their job, though dangerous, doesn’t involve much complication.
To stop a fire, they take away its fuel.
A coordinated symphony of clinking, clanking and buzzing crashed through the forest of thick, dry brush on the south side of Cachuma Lake.
Working towards each other from opposite ends, the two crews scrape away at the ground’s surface, pulling back dry brush to bare earth as they create a fire line like those used to halt out-of-control blazes.
Towards the front of the line, workers clip down scrub oak trees and chamise shrubs with chainsaws as John Lister heaves the branches behind the fire line. Following him, workers swing Pulaskies, McLeods and Combi-tools – all forms of hoes and axes named after the firefighters who created them.
“Hold it through,” one crewmember shouts. “How’s it looking back there, Joe?”
“Looking good,” he hollers back, dusting away any remnants of brush from the line.
In a matter of minutes, crews clear about 500 feet of ground.
THE STARTING POINT
It’s physically exhausting work. Manfred, who joined at 20 years old in 2005 when the crew was reinstated for a second time, was enticed by the prospect of hiking, camping and being outdoors, activities he enjoyed on weekends.
Now, the 30-year old crew boss, worn by daily hikes required as part of the job, hardly spends his days off trekking around the trails. A 10-year veteran of the crew, save for the three years it was disbanded, Manfred is one of few who stuck it out and remained.
Most crewmembers are young, fit, firefighters in their early 20s, putting their time in on an assignment that is difficult and dangerous.
Few want to make it a career, but plenty are clamoring for their positions. Last winter, the division received 240 applications for three open spots.
“This is a starting point,” Manfred said. “There’s only a few spots, and it’s a tough job. It beats you up.”
Instead, they want to advance into coveted municipal positions, “like them,” one hand crew member leaning on the back of the crew buggy said, as two public information officers roll up to the roadside in a Suburban, joking about watching Judge Judy in the air-conditioned SUV while guzzling Gatorade.
“Retention is the biggest challenge,” Daron Mafi, the crew’s superintendent said. “They’re all testing to get full-time jobs. Every one of these guys wants to be full-time firefighters in an engine crew.”
While the hand crews work 10-hour days four days a week, their benefits and pay are significantly less than others, Santa Barbara County Fire Department Public Information Officer Dave Zaniboni said.
At the end of the day, crew members spent more than an hour at camp re-sharpening Pulaskies, getting the gunk out of chainsaws and grinding axes while Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” played in the background.
One by one, they taped up the sharp ends of their tools, loaded them back into the crew buggy, and retired for the afternoon.
The next day, with some luck, they’ll be at another roadside, whacking weeds or building a preventative fire line, and not engaged on the front lines of a brush fire.
But few are optimistic about that possibility in drought-stricken California, where every day is deemed fire season.