Engine 5488 from Monte Rio looked a little rough when it pulled into the Sonoma County Fairgrounds on Thursday afternoon.
After four and a half days fighting the devastating Sonoma County wildfires, the wildland engine was covered in dirt, missing its right headlight, which had been struck by a burning tree limb, and was riding on a flat left rear tire.
Its crew didn’t look much better.
“I haven’t been out of these clothes for five days,” said firefighter Brian Lovett after he swung down from the cab a little unsteadily.
His unshaven face sunburned and smeared with dirt, Lovett looked like he was going to collapse. His eyes were droopy and his movements sluggish.
A state parks worker in his regular job, Lovett said he figured he’d only had about four hours of sleep since he and hundreds of other firefighters were called to start fighting the wind-driven wildfires that broke out late Sunday.
Many local firefighters who’ve been battling blazes around the county virtually nonstop since they started have also been fighting fatigue and sleep deprivation. On top of that, they’ve been battling the emotional exhaustion that comes from dealing with death and destruction on a scale the city has never seen. Of the 2,834 homes lost in Santa Rosa alone, eight belonged to Santa Rosa firefighters, said Assistant Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal, himself among them.
But now, thanks to an influx of several hundred new firefighters into the county in the past 24 hours — including many from out of state — local crews are getting some well-earned rest.
“My heroes!” said Mike Dahle, a volunteer firefighter from Cazadero, of the reinforcements. Dahle, a general contractor by day, figures he got only a little more sleep than Lovett because a valve malfunction forced him to take another rig back home for repairs earlier in the week.
With a total of nearly 3,700 personnel now fighting the multiple major fires burning in Sonoma and other counties, a more predictable 24-hours-on, 24-hours-off routine is in place.
“Now what you’ll see is half of them going out fresh, and the other half coming in half-dead,” Dahle said.
Fatigue in the fire service during major incidents is a major issue, and is something Cal Fire takes seriously, said Capt. Richard Cordova, a Cal Fire public information officer. It’s the responsibility of the individual crew chiefs to make sure their team gets the rest they need, he said.
But there are no set rules governing sleep schedules because every fire is different and every firefighter is different, Cordova said. It is not unusual at all for firefighters who get to a blaze first to be out there for a good while before they can get spelled, he said.
As more help arrives, a more predictable rotation schedule can be established, Cordova said.
Steve Baxman, Monte Rio fire chief, says he can usually go about 48 hours straight on a major firefight before he needs to crash. Even in the worst fires, there are usually times when firefighters can give each other breaks so they can catch naps wherever they can — usually in the rig or on the ground during a nighttime break in the action, Baxman said.
“When you start to go three or four days without a break, then you’re starting to look at a situation where people can get injured,” Baxman said.
When the adrenaline is flowing, firefighters are usually fine even if they’re sleep deprived, Baxman said. It’s when they are doing less active assignments, like guarding structures at night against possible flare-ups, that the fatigue can really set in and become a problem.
“Just being vigilant all the time is rough on you, too,” he said.
When firefighters start slowing down, “making stupid mistakes” and basically don’t have their head in the game, then crew chiefs need to make sure they get some rest, he said.
That can be hard for some firefighters to accept, but Cal Fire has safety officers whose job it is to make sure they get the rest they need to stay safe, Cordova said. There already has been at least one instance in Sonoma County where a team was ordered off the front line by a safety officer, he said.
Another Cazadero firefighter, Cory Olson, said he staves off fatigue by drinking coffee and eating whatever he can find, which he said isn’t hard given how generous appreciative residents have been with food.
But when there was a break in the action protecting luxury homes near Oakmont from the stubborn Adobe fire the other night, Olson said the rocky ground and a water bottle for a pillow were like heaven.
“You’re so exhausted its like you’re lying in a plush bed at that point,” Olson said.