Today is one of the few days this blog goes off-topic.
At the end of the day, all I could think to say was â€œthank you.â€
It seemed woefully inadequate, but itâ€™s all I could come up with.
Yesterday I spend the day with the men of a fire strike force â€” men asked to go in and protect homes and other buildings with flames bearing down on then in this rash the Southern California wildfires. The team was made up of five engines â€” two from Long Beach and one each from Sante Fe Springs, Vernon and Downey â€” with a total of 22 men, all who had been Malibu for three days before I caught up with them at the base camp for the Santiago fire in Orange County.
It was amazing that after four days of breathing in smoke, have fires race up hills to where they were protecting a home, having glowing embers blow down their shirts, and having moments where they questioned both their sanity and their mortality, when the guys were talking about their experiences they casually throw in words like â€œplayâ€ and â€œfun.â€
Oh, they were all business. This was no game. One guy described Malibu to me as â€œa scene out of Hades, the ground a carpet of embersâ€
But this was also what they love to do. And it showed.
Maybe the most amazing thing was that after four days of entering situations that were at times bordering on hopeless, their spirits were very high. When I caught up to them it was right after the first good nightâ€™s sleep in 72 hours (a whopping six hours on a cot outdoors) they were eager to get back into it. The breakfasts were welcomed, as were some clean clothes and baby wipes that would have to do for showers, but it was clear that standing around they felt like a player on the sidelines.
I followed them up to a staging area in the hills, where at times you could see the flames and could always see (and breathe in) plumes of smoke. These guys were experts in reading wind â€” knowing that a plume going straight up was a bad sign because a smoky energy cloud was forming that was going to come down at some point.
But this â€” like all major operations â€” was a case of hurry up and wait. Waiting for the wind to shift, and therefore waiting hours before the commanders knew where to send them, what houses to save. And waiting was no fun for them.
But like soldiers fresh from a battle they were quick to exchange their stories of the last few days. Of how hard it is to breathe when a dry eucalyptus tree virtually explodes right in front of you. Of standing in a shower of embers from a guesthouse they were unable to save and wondering if the main home â€“ with ice plant at least protecting one side â€“ could be saved.
It could. But really, my words are a poor expression of what these guys went through and did â€“ of the respect and honor these firefighters and the thousands like them deserve. So Iâ€™ll just leave you with a few of their quotes.
â€œWe realize itâ€™s someoneâ€™s house, just like it would be my house, so youâ€™ll work 110% to save it.â€
â€œYou go and go and then maybe you can catch a few hours of rest, the somebody gives you an assignment and you get jacked up again and you want to get right back up there.â€
â€œWe were in Malibu for three days and that first day was really rough. We were on top of a roof and it was just so black you couldnâ€™t see and it was hard to breathe, but you do what youâ€™ve got to do.â€
â€œAfter those first days we came back to camp and our eyes were just bulging and red.â€
â€œBut when you get back here you forget a little bit about what it was like at that moment. We just want to get back in there.â€
They did get back in, sent into the deep recesses of a wooded canyon to protect some homes. Today they may get some rest, but they also expect to be moving on to San Diego by the end of today. To get in the middle of some more fires.
Gentlemen, we all thank you.