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In Arizona, 'adrenaline rush' propels fire crews

By Phil Gast, CNN
Carrying 25-35 pounds of gear and working 16-hour days, ground crews constitute the primary firefighting weapon.
Carrying 25-35 pounds of gear and working 16-hour days, ground crews constitute the primary firefighting weapon.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Air and grounds crews make progress against giant Arizona wildfire
  • Generations-old hand tools are primary weapons
  • Crews work 16-hour days, two-week shifts
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(CNN) -- The thousands of people fighting the monster fire in Arizona have the finest in technology behind them.

But, in the end, officials said, "boots on the ground," in the form of men and women in their 20s and 30s wielding axes, rakes and hoes, will turn the tide against the two-week-old blaze.

"We're still putting out fires with sharpened pieces of metal at the end of sticks," said Bill Gabbert, a former wildland firefighter who is blogging about the blaze.

"It works well," said Gabbert. "Slowly, but (successful) eventually."

The Wallow Fire, about the size of Houston, will be one for the record books. It has been a challenge for crews.

Currently the second-largest in Arizona history, the blaze has drawn personnel, air tankers, helicopters and fire engines from all over the region and country.

A converted DC-10, capable of dropping a stream of water or fire retardant 100 feet wide by one mile long, made 10 drops on Thursday.

Huge Sikorsky helicopters, resembling giant wasps, are swarming over mountain resort ridges in eastern Arizona.

They're an essential part of the firefighting team, and help suppress fire in containment zones.

Firefighters in Arizona make progress
Most flee fire, some stay put
Giant wildfire in Arizona
Arizona wildfire
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Carrying 25 to 35 pounds of gear and working 16-hour days, ground crews constitute the primary firefighting weapon.

"They endure incredible danger without complaint, except about the coffee," quipped Jim Wilkins, a spokesman for the Southwest Interagency Incident Management team fighting the 430,171-acre conflagration.

Made of up to 20 members, the crews are up around 5 a.m., have a 6 a.m. briefing, breakfast and then are on their way to the fire front. Often they have to hike a mile or more to get to their station. They may camp on the scene for several nights.

"They do everything as a unit," Wilkins said.

Fire managers at Wallow have 76 hand crews and 26 elite, highly trained "hotshot" crews at their disposal.

Wildland firefighting concentrates on depriving a fire of its food source: Underbrush and ground cover that can easily ignite in a fire known for high winds and low humidity.

Hand crew members have specialized roles.

"Sawyers" and "swampers" cut and move vegetation. A "scraper" helps clear the soil of combustible vegetation. Firefighters employ chainsaws; saws; Pulaskis, a double-headed ax and digging tool; as well as the McLeod, a hoe that scrapes and rakes material.

Gabbert, 63, of Hot Springs, South Dakota, spent most of his firefighting career in Southern California, but recalled fighting an Arizona blaze in 115-degree temperatures.

"You perspire heavily on the ground," he said, adding most crew members take at least 1 gallon of water in their packs. He is now a fire management consultant.

Firefighters wear long-sleeved shirts, pants, boots, helmets and gloves and tote radios and emergency fire shelters.

The environment can be difficult, as it has been in Arizona.

"The last week we've been living in smoke," said Wilkins, 64, a retired San Bernardino, California, fire captain.

Some firefighters have runny noses and are having a difficult time with the smoke conditions, but officials said almost all always want to be at the fire line.

As of Friday, only three people have been injured at the Wallow Fire; those were considered minor.

Safety is paramount.

"Everyone goes home," Wilkins said.

In 2010, according to provisional numbers from the U.S. Fire Administration, nine crew members died in wildland fires, about half the number who fell in 2009 and just over one-third of the 26 fatalities in 2008.

Base pay, depending on training, experience and responsibility, ranges from $10 to $33 per hour. Firefighters can also earn overtime pay.

But wildland firefighting is not about the pay.

"There isn't anybody getting rich out here," Wilkins said.

So why do they do it, especially when crews are away from home for weeks or months at a time and work two-week shifts, with only a day or two off before redeployment?

"It's an adrenaline rush," said Gabbert, who operates wildfiretoday.com. His blog contains mostly news coverage, but occasionally features commentary. One piece argued for additional air tankers around the country.

Gabbert likens the experience to camaraderie in war. Colleagues become close buddies and watch each other's backs.

The Wallow Fire crews have concentrated on saving homes in several cities and resort communities in the picturesque region.

Twenty-nine homes have been destroyed, 22 of them in Greer, where fast-moving flames swept in.

"The structural protection efforts have been absolutely fantastic," according to spokesman John Helmich.

Wildland firefighters can see evidence of their efforts.

"You can see what your hard work is doing," Gabbert said. "You can see the fire stopping at your fire line."

 
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