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In Northern California, Exhausted Firefighters Push Themselves 'To The Limits'

The orange glow of one of California's many wildfires can be seen Friday from a hilltop in Geyserville, Calif.
Marcio Jose Sanchez
The orange glow of one of California's many wildfires can be seen Friday from a hilltop in Geyserville, Calif.

Updated at 8:30 p.m. ET

Some 9,000 firefighters who are working long hours with little or no rest continue to battle historically destructive Northern California wildfires that have claimed at least 40 lives, wiped out whole neighborhoods and damaged vineyards and farms in the heart of the state's wine country. In this week's fires alone, 22 people have died, the Sonoma County Coroner's office said Saturday.

"We're pretty exhausted. It's pretty steep terrain," Sonoma wildland firefighter Steven Moore says at a makeshift staging area next to the Tubbs Fire, which is still raging just a few miles outside the tourist city of Calistoga.

Moore says he has hardly slept this week. "We've been dealing with trying to save the structures. The winds aren't helping. All we can do is get to the structures as fast as we possibly can and save what we can."

Additional firefighting resources have poured into California in the last 24 hours from across the state and the nation.

Fueled mostly by chewing tobacco, coffee and adrenaline, firefighters here are, in the words of one commander, "pushing it to the limits."

"We have people who've been on that line for days, and they don't want to leave that section of line because there's still work to do, there are homes to save and they're very passionate about it," says Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann. "We're public service employees and [that's what] everyone does — we're here to help."

Now getting firefighters off the line and rested is a priority, even if it's against their will. "It's like pulling teeth to get firefighters and law enforcement to disengage," he says.

Part of the passion to stay comes from the fact that many of those fighting the fires make their homes and livelihood in the area.

"Everybody is shot, but at the same time, a lot of the people working the fires live here. It's their community. So no one can really shut down," says Joe Buchmeier, a battalion chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. He lives just down the hill from where he is battling a cluster of fires still burning north of the city of Sonoma.

"They're actually getting forced to shut down. People are saying, 'You're going to go sleep!' So we go sleep and then come back as soon as we can," Buchmeier says.

Since the fires fueled by powerful winds erupted last Sunday night, he says he has basically caught two or three hours of sleep in the cab of his truck when he can. One time, he "ended up on a couch for probably three hours" before heading back out to the fire.

He was headed for a short nap just as a giant air tanker swooped overhead dropping another burst of rusty red fire retardant on the nearby hillside.

"This starts happening, and you get pumped up again," he says.

But coffee and adrenaline only take you so far "before you hit the wall."

And stronger gusting "red flag" winds are forecast for this weekend, putting fire crews on edge.

At a staging area for the Tubbs Fire outside of Calistoga, "the fire is just jumping around all over the place," says Brandon Tolp, a Cal Fire fireman from the San Bernardino area.

He has a wad of chew in his mouth and more tins of it visible inside his firetruck. It's fuel, he says, when you have little time to eat. "Last time I ate was yesterday at noon, so something to pass the time," he says with a smile.

More than a dozen wildfires are burning in Northern California with only several of them partially contained. Firefighters are reporting modest but solid progress.

"Anywhere we have uncontained (fire) lines, we are concerned," Biermann, who is the Cal Fire deputy commander for Napa, said Friday. Firefighters "are tired, they're working hard; but we're making great progress" on the Atlas Fire in Sonoma and other stubborn blazes.

The Tubbs Fire has burned more than 35,000 acres so far. It's now 44 percent contained, officials say, and fire crews are "doing a great job keeping that fire away from Calistoga," says Napa County supervisor Diane Dillon.

The city and the surrounding unincorporated areas are still under a mandatory evacuation.

Dillon again asked the some three dozen people who have defied the evacuation order to "leave the city now" so that first responders "can do their job."

Calistoga resident Greg Winter, whose home is close to the front line of the fire, is one of those who has not heeded the mandatory order. He says he wants to take care of his animals — ducks, chickens, goats, turkeys and more. "They have people to save and homes to save, so they don't need to be worrying about my animals," he says.

As firetrucks rumble by, Winter and his partner Heidi Vardaro are hurriedly raking up bone dry leaves and brush to try to create a fire break between the roadway and his property as ash falls around him. The fire is just 2 or so miles away.

"Yeah that's pretty close, but you've got a lot of land break here," he says pointing to the rows of wine grapes across the street. "We'd see it coming," Winter says optimistically. "If push comes to shove, we're ready to go. The keys are in the truck. We'll stop what we're doing and get the hell outta here."

He says if it comes to it, he'll set all his animals free in the hope they can fend for themselves.

California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom says big fires interacting with population centers may be "the new norm out here," requiring new strategies to mitigate, predict and aggressively react to fire outbreaks quicker.

Sharing best practices, Newsom says, across state borders will be key, including training, technology and the creation of teams that deploy aggressively on the ground. "Opportunities to dust off new technologies" including drone and infrared tools "to get out there and get ahead of some of these fires in ways that, frankly, only technology can provide," Newsom says.

Meantime, on the very southern perimeter of the Tubbs Fire, contractors with two giant bulldozers are poised to cut a fresh fire line up a steep hill just past rows of deep blue zinfandel grapes.

Bulldozer driver Jake Moore from Eureka is blunt about the challenging terrain as a boss ahead of him hangs ribbon to guide the machines up the hill. "You're gonna have to pay attention to what you're doing," he says with a wad of chew in his mouth gazing at the steep and rocky hillside in front of him.

Buchmeier, the Cal Fire battalion chief, says that when the time comes, he is looking forward to a long, deep sleep and a cold India Pale Ale.

NPR's Windsor Johnston and Richard Gonzales contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.
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