Firefighters from the Palo Alto Fire Department returned home on Thursday afternoon, tired but in good spirits, after 15 days of fighting wildfires across the state. They spent the most recent part of their trip battling the Mendocino Complex fire, which is now the largest fire in state history.
Back at Station 5 on Arastradero Road, returning firefighters David Dahl, Manny Macias, Orley Hatfield and Jeremy Palmitier were wearing smiles and kept up their easygoing attitudes, trading jokes while unloading gear from a fire truck.
Despite the composure they displayed, however, their battle was tough. Over the last two weeks, the four-man crew had encountered fire and smoke face to face, dealt with poison oak that sent rashes to every crevice of their bodies, scorching heats that climbed up to 105 degrees, tough terrains and unexpected winds that kept them on their toes -- all on 24-hour shifts, with little to no sleep every two days.
Tending to equipment around the fire truck and the lot, firefighter Manny Macias' two arms still appeared extremely swollen with red bumps. He said he was "tired" and "full of poison oak" but that it was "great to be back."
"We worked really hard, lot of hiking, lot of strain on the body, but everybody came back safe, and that's what we ask for at the end of the day," Fire Capt. David Dahl said.
Dahl said the record-breaking Mendocino Complex fire grew as it did partly due to firefighters already tending to many ongoing wildfires across the state. Resources were lacking, with units spread out thin. Out-of-state and out-of-country units, including ones from New Zealand and Australia, assisted in the effort.
Palo Alto fire sent a crew to the Cranston fire in Riverside County on July 25 and six days later, the group drove 12 hours north and headed straight to work on the Mendocino Complex fire, which consists of the Ranch fire and River fire in Mendocino and Lake counties. Both fires started July 27. As of Friday morning, the fires had burned 258,527 acres with 53 percent containment and 48,920 acres with 87 percent containment, respectively, according to Cal Fire.
The firefighters from Palo Alto mainly fought the River Fire, where many homes were threatened near the Lakeport area.
"Our main job out there (was) to protect (all) structures and the lives that we could," Dahl said.
Dahl and his team saw fires blowing across roads and tried to prevent fires from reaching homes by prepping around houses.
"We try to cut trees down, take out weeds (and) take out grass," Dahl said.
All Palo Alto firefighters undergo annual training to prepare for wildland fires. They participate in both hands-on drills outdoors and online courses to refresh their background knowledge on weather, topography and fires.
"We have the Foothills we know we have to protect. ... So it's one of our priorities coming into what we call wildland fire season, or summer," Dahl said.
Still, he said, when it came to the Mendocino Fire complex, no one was expecting a fire of this scale.
"(At) one of the briefings one morning, there was a Cal Fire chief who had been working that Mendocino area for 35-plus years. He said, 'I never thought I'd see certain things in my career: and one of them was seeing a fire come from one side of the forest, and completely burning through the other side,'" Dahl said.
With the lack of resources and fluidity of the fire, there was hardly any rest for the firefighters. Dahl described how despite their rotating schedule of a 24-hour work shift starting at 7 a.m., followed by a 24-hour period off, there was very little actual rest time after they returned to the base camp. They had to prep the engine and wake up early for the next 24-hour work shift. Sometimes they had no base camp and slept outside in over 100-degree weather with engines constantly going in and out.
Although the work can be taxing, he said a constant positive attitude, compassion and united goal between his "brothers and sisters" helped push them through.
"It's one of those things where at the end of the 24-hour shift you see all the prep work we did and the fire comes through and all the houses are still there the next day. We know that's the end game, so it keeps us going," he said.
Now that they're back, they're looking forward to spending plenty of time with family and friends, for the first time in weeks. Although they tried their best to be in touch with loved ones, they often lacked cellphone connection in remote areas.
"Manny has two baby girl twins at home he hasn't seen for two weeks," Dahl said. "(We're) overall just ready to relax, ready to take off the boots."
After a few days off, the firefighters will be back to work on Sunday and Monday, going right back into the normal swing of things.