Local firefighters battle grueling working conditions at King Fire

Palo Alto's Engine 66 spent nine days fighting blaze in El Dorado County

Thousands of firefighters were sent last month to the wildland King Fire, burning east of Sacramento in El Dorado County, which has destroyed 12 homes and 68 other structures.

Among those battling the blaze -- which on Wednesday stood at 97,717 acres and 98 percent contained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) -- was Engine 66 of the Palo Alto Fire Department. Engine 66's Barry Marchisio, Jesse Aguilar, Manny Macias plus Chris Pombo were deployed on Sept. 17 as part of a Santa Clara County strike team, along with engines from Mountain View, Sunnyvale, San Jose and Santa Clara.

The team spent nine days fighting the inferno and was assigned to protect more than 100 homes. On Sept. 26, Engine 66 and the Santa Clara County strike team returned home, fatigued from the harsh working conditions.

Engine 66 is a designated engine that goes to aid in a fire when the Office of Emergency Services through Santa Clara County calls for a strike team, said Marchisio, Engine 66's fire captain.

"That goes with the territory of being assigned to Engine 66 -- you know that at any time, especially in the summertime, you can be called out to something like that," Marchisio, 61, said.

When the strike team arrived at the staging area at El Dorado County Fairgrounds, the scene could only be described as "chaotic," Macias, 46, said.

"When we were driving in you could see the mushroom cloud of smoke," he said. By that day, the fire had already doubled in size.

Typically when a strike team from an urban fire department is called to fight a wildfire, Marchisio said, it is for what they call "structure protection purposes." The strike team is assigned to a neighborhood or area where there are a lot of homes to prepare the residences for the possibility that the fire could come through. Marchisio, Aguilar, Macias and Pombo, along with their strike team, prepped 160 homes, including clearing items that could burn, such as wood piles; pulling shrubs to create a defensible space around the homes; and sweeping flammable leaves and twigs off of roofs.

"Hopefully what we did had a positive effect on these people and their homes," said Marchisio, who has been a firefighter for 36 years.

The crew worked in 24-hour shifts, trudging up and down the steep terrains of El Dorado National Forest carrying hoses, axes, protective gear and other essential equipment to hold the fire line and keep the blaze from sweeping through communities along U.S. Route 50.

Macias describes a night when the team had to go to an area the fire had passed through hours earlier to spray water on hot spots and tree stumps that were still smoldering to ensure that hot embers didn't ignite another fire.

"One of the nights we were out there ... it was like walking on the moon because there was 18 inches of ash on the ground," Macias said, demonstrating with his hands the way they tromped across the forest with long strides, their boots sinking into the soot and dusty gray ash. They walked for miles over that terrain and encountered large holes where 100-foot-tall trees used to stand.

The same night they were out deep in the forest -- without cellphone reception -- working on the fire line, the crew had to sleep on the ground because they didn't bring their sleeping cots. One member would stay awake to monitor the situation while the rest slept -- or tried too.

"It was cold out there. We almost all had to huddle up just to stay warm," Macias said. "You really only got about 10 minutes' worth of sleep at a time because you're sleeping on the ground" and worrying about the wildlife, including bugs, bears and rattlesnakes. But what the crew was most worried about were the "widowmakers" -- treetops or branches poorly or no longer attached to a tree that could fall and potentially kill them.

"The trees are burnt from the inside, and in the middle of the night you would hear the crackling of a tree, and then you'll feel it hit the ground, but you really don't know which way it's going to fall, so wherever you are standing at or trying to lay down, you have to pay attention," Macias said. "When you're trying to sleep, you can't pay attention."

Before they slept out where the fire line was, the crew would survey the area to make sure there weren't any trees that could fall, said Marchisio, but "all night we could hear trees falling."

"From my perspective, as a captain, my main concern was the safety of the guys on the engine with me," Marchisio said. "You can be walking around minding your own business carrying a fire hose, and you can step on a rock and twist your ankle and fall.

"There were people who got hurt at the fire. One firefighter fell down a mountain and had to get helicoptered out because he couldn't walk out. There is always that danger. It is a very uncontrolled environment, even more so than if we were fighting a fire here in town in some building."

The team was also assigned to pump water out of a lake using a portable pumper to fill tanker trucks bringing water to the fire line. Marchisio said they spent almost 16 hours pumping water one day.

"It was a constant parade of trucks coming to fill their 3,000-gallon water tanks," he said. "It was a pretty significant thing because one of the most important things they needed up there was water."

After working 24 hours straight, the crew was able to take a one-day break at the staging area, where there were showers, a medical trailer, cooking facilities and sleeping trailers and tents. But even on their days off, the crew was constantly at work, making sure their rig was back in service and equipment was ready to leave at a moment's notice.

"You're on your rest period, but you are still very much under the control of the people running the incident," Marchisio said.

The hardest part about the experience was being away from home, said Macias, who has a wife and four children.

"It starts to wear on you, but you look at it and you say, 'Look, we're here for the right reason, and we're here to do a good job,'" he said.

None of them worried about the workload or complained about the grueling work conditions. Instead they kept a positive attitude because, Macias said, "We were there to do one job and that was to serve the community."

Some people from the communities they aided found their own ways to show appreciation to the firefighters.

"People were making cards for us. I think that was probably one of the best part for me being there -- the feeling of being appreciated," Macias said.

"People were even saying thank you after their houses burned down," Aguilar, 37, added.

During the year, as wildland fire season approaches, the crew tailors its training to brush up on all the skills it needs to have in order to deal with a wildfire. The team has been on multiple campaign fires together, and "Each person brings something to the table to be able to be on this rig," Macias said.

"It was a great experience. We worked really hard, and everyone had a positive attitude and our efforts paid off in the end. What we did had a positive significance," said Marchisio, adding that it was a team effort by all five engines under the direction of strike team leader, Battalion Chief Rich Alameda, from Mountain View, who was assisted by Battalion Chief Ted Vandenberg.

"Are we ready to go to the next one?" Macias asked. "Of course we are. We are ready to go tomorrow. That's just kind of how we are. When the bell rings, it's showtime, and you need to go out there and give it 100 percent."

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6 people like this
Posted by Tom Dehn
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 9, 2014 at 10:46 am

Hello Folks,

I live on a property that was saved by your firefighters!.

The "King" fire came within two miles of our property and we simultaneously lived in terror and awe at the work done by the remarkable team of firefighters and their support groups. Any imaginable "Thank You" would fall far short of the gratitude we have for these brave and tenacious individuals and teams!

Sincerely, The Dehn Family

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