Jonas Smith and his crew drive into the west face of the August Complex Fire in California’s Mendocino National Forest. They’re in Squad 40, a Ford F550 outfitted with a 300-gallon water tank and cache of firefighting tools, including axes, Pulaskis, chainsaws, and portable fire pumps. It’s a specialized vehicle known to firefighters as a Type 6, or “brush truck”.
Smith is the engine boss of a three-man crew of wildland firefighters that are conducting roving operations in search of spot fires. These small flare-ups spread across the forest floor the way paper burns—sharp lines of flame and ember eat their way across virgin material and leave nothing but ash in their wake. Though they start small, spot fires can climb the trunks of trees and quickly engulf the canopy of the forest, turning into an inferno that moves faster than the firefighters’ truck.
The crew of Squad 40 has been out here for days, and it’s getting harder to differentiate time as their 24-hour shifts compound and their workload slowly wears them down. Their mission is to keep these spot fires from growing into something bigger, to hold the western front of the August Complex Fire and keep it from moving any closer to nearby towns. Their bodies are covered in a crusty coating of dust, ash, and sweat, and their lungs feel as if they’ve chain-smoked pack after pack of cigarettes. The air is thick with the cremated remains of plants and trees.
Most wildfires these days are ignited by manmade sources, but the August Complex Fire was started by a series of lightning strikes on August 16th and 17th, 2020. The strikes birthed fires that eventually merged into a massive inferno that spread across the forests of northern California. The blaze quickly overwhelmed the local resources, so backup teams from across the country joined the effort. As part of a Western Washington Strike Team, Seattle’s Squad 40 was one out-of-state crew heading the call.
This August day in Northern California is a hot one, and the smoke casts a haze across the forest landscape, rendering the trees imposing and alien. The limited visibility casts a sense of danger. As they drive the dusty mountain roads, Squad 40 notices a spot fire on a steep slope below them. With their Pulaskis, axes, and fire hose in hand, they traverse down to the burning brush.
As the crew gets the spot fire under control, Smith realizes that they might be a bit overextended. Fatigue and heat exhaustion are setting in. His men need a break, and they need to be fully capable of extricating themselves if the fire turns on them. Using the fire hoses as ropes, they climb back up to the brush truck, occasionally slipping on loose dust and ash.
“Mountain climbing and firefighting!” Smith says, doing his best to keep morale high. “How about we take a break?”
When working long shifts in the field, brief breaks are a luxury, especially when conditions are calm. Smith stands as a lookout while his men dig shallow foxholes in the steep hillside under the shade of unburned trees. These earthen beds are affectionately called coyote camp by the crew. It doesn’t get more primitive than this.
Just 15 minutes pass, and Smith fights his heavy eyelids to keep a constant vigil. Then he hears one of his men yell, “Wolf!”
The three men jump to their feet and take shelter in the brush truck. Directly in front of them a hulking beast of a creature opens its mouth and bellows: “Moooooooooo.”
The wolf is a cow, and everyone has a good laugh at their sleep-deprived squad mate’s expense.
Later that night, Squad 40 fights trees that stand as lone torches in the blackness. Embers fly in clouds overhead, flecked across the night sky like the Milky Way. Any one of these embers could ignite the trees that surround them, setting fire like incendiary rounds in battle. The threat is clear and present. Smith, the designated lookout—from the truck this time—notices what he thinks are headlights in the rearview mirror and wonders why any other firefighters would be coming into their operational area. The beams intensify, and he realizes they are not lights at all, but yet more hot spots that have grown to a raging fire. He calls the crew back to attack the new blaze as it lights up their corner of the forest, forming violent shadows that surround and threaten to overtake them.
The Environmental Protection Agency maintains that “higher temperatures and drought are likely to increase the severity, frequency, and extent of wildfires.” Indeed, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions’ tracking project has shown climate change’s effect on wildfires, causing them to be more frequent, hotter, and more devastating.
In 2020, five of the six largest wildfires on record burned in California. The August Complex Fire became the largest wildfire in documented American history, eventually burning a total of 1,032,648 acres of land—a landmass larger than the state of Rhode Island. It was a firestorm that burned for months, destroy nearly a thousand structures, and cost over $300 million in firefighting efforts.
The science is pretty clear. One study, titled Impact of Anthropogenic Climate Change across Western US Forests, from the National Academy of Sciences for the United States of America, states, ”human-caused climate change caused over half of the documented increases in fuel aridity since the 1970s and doubled the cumulative forest fire area since 1984.” It is widely expected that the records set during the 2020 fire season will soon be eclipsed.
Patrick McBride sits in the cockpit of a C-130 Hercules, a military cargo plane retrofitted to fight wildfires. He’s a California Air National Guardsman who’s been called from his day job—he’s an American Airlines pilot—as a “surge asset” in this multi-agency response to the August Complex Fire. The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho monitors ongoing fires and communicates with local agencies in order to lead quick federal responses when fires burn beyond the capabilities of regional control. McBride got the call, and his mission today is to follow the lead plane in front of him to targeted areas of the burn, where he will drop 3,000 pounds of what pilots refer to as mud—a red fire retardant called Phos-check LC95A. The pilots take great care to drop the mud in areas free of firefighters on the ground, so they don’t “paint” them red. It is a highly coordinated effort that requires all the agencies in operation to be abreast of every tactic being used at all times.
In this new age of firefighting, as military planes roar overhead and strike teams fight below, we’re using the methods of battle, not to combat an enemy, but to prevent the mass destruction of our forests and our homes.
Back on the ground, Squad 40 finishes up their shift and makes their way down from the mountains to the nearby town of Ketterpom. Their basecamp is split between the town general store and the local volunteer fire station. They ready their gear for their next mission, head to the showers to wash the soot from their skin, and meander to the fire station where a few townspeople have gathered a cache of supplies for them. As a way of giving thanks for the firefighters’ labors, these appreciative locals have made home-cooked meals that they serve with kind smiles and grateful nods. Through bloodshot eyes…