Environment & Science

Pilot Fire: Unglamorous mop-up duty can have hidden hazards

Nicole White is a forest technician with the San Bernardino National Forest working on the Pilot Fire behind Ryan Nuckols’ home in Hesperia California on Aug. 9, 2016.
Nicole White is a forest technician with the San Bernardino National Forest working on the Pilot Fire behind Ryan Nuckols’ home in Hesperia California on Aug. 9, 2016.
Dan Tuffs for KPCC
Nicole White is a forest technician with the San Bernardino National Forest working on the Pilot Fire behind Ryan Nuckols’ home in Hesperia California on Aug. 9, 2016.
Damage left by the Pilot Fire in Hesperia on August 9th, 2016.
Dan Tuffs for KPCC
Nicole White is a forest technician with the San Bernardino National Forest working on the Pilot Fire behind Ryan Nuckols’ home in Hesperia California on Aug. 9, 2016.
Smoke from the Pilot Fire in California on August 9th, 2016.
Dan Tuffs for KPCC
Nicole White is a forest technician with the San Bernardino National Forest working on the Pilot Fire behind Ryan Nuckols’ home in Hesperia California on Aug. 9, 2016.
A San Bernardino National Forrest worker on the Pilot Fire behind Ryan Nuckols’ home in Hesperia California on August 9th, 2016.
Dan Tuffs for KPCC
Nicole White is a forest technician with the San Bernardino National Forest working on the Pilot Fire behind Ryan Nuckols’ home in Hesperia California on Aug. 9, 2016.
San Bernardino County Fire fighters replenish their fire engine with water off highway 173 on August 9th, 2016.
Dan Tuffs for KPCC
Nicole White is a forest technician with the San Bernardino National Forest working on the Pilot Fire behind Ryan Nuckols’ home in Hesperia California on Aug. 9, 2016.
Hesperia resident Ryan Nuckols on his property. Fire crews doused his home with pink fire retardant in attempt to keep it safe.
Dan Tuffs for KPCC
Nicole White is a forest technician with the San Bernardino National Forest working on the Pilot Fire behind Ryan Nuckols’ home in Hesperia California on Aug. 9, 2016.
Pink fire retardant covers cars near Ryan Nuckols' home as the Pilot Fire burns nearby in Hesperia, California.
Dan Tuffs for KPCC


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As firefighters increase control around the Pilot Fire near Hesperia, the work shifts from putting out live flames to the painstaking, lung-busting work of making sure the fire stays extinguished.

It's less dramatic than the initial fire attack jobs of cutting fire lines by hand or bulldozer and dropping water and fire retardant on remote areas in the path of the fire. It's slow, dirty work — and absolutely vital to keep a fire from re-igniting and blowing up into new areas.

Mop-up is the job to which U.S. Forest Service Firefighter Nicole White was assigned this week. Working on a slope in the rural Las Flores area near Hesperia, she  swung a tool that's half axe, half hoe, called a Pulaski.  She pulled up rocks and roots, turned over the top layer of ash and mixed in dirt and water from a fire hose. Every couple of swings, she takes off a glove and holds the back of her hand to the soil, testing to see if it's cool.

Firefighter Nicole White works tp protect a home from the Pilot Fire burning in Hesperia, California on August 9th, 2016.
Firefighter Nicole White works tp protect a home from the Pilot Fire burning in Hesperia, California on August 9th, 2016.
Dan Tuffs for KPCC

White recently started work as a forestry technician out of the U.S. Forest Service station in Fawnskin in the San Bernardino Mountains. The Pilot Fire that broke out Sunday was her first really big wildland fire.

"I love it," she said. "We were part of the initial attack."

The fire started in the mountains near Lake Silverwood.  It moved quickly into Las Flores, a low-lying area hugging the hills south of Hesperia.

Working near that front line, she got a sort of baptism — doused in fire retardant.

"The first thing that happened to us on the fire, we got dropped on," she said. "The aircraft that drops all the pink stuff and everything, we got the splatter from it."

The sleeves of her yellow Nomex fire-resistant shirt were stained with bright pink fire retardant.

A plane drops fire retardant on an area just outside the Pilot Fire where fire crews worked to protect a home. Video provided courtesy of Ryan Nuckols. 

Her rural surroundings were also tinged with pink. About 100 feet downslope from the burn line, a  house,  play equipment in the yard, even a collection of the owner's vintage Jaguar cars out back were solidly covered in the pink stuff dumped by a firefighting airplane.

Her work moves along the edge of the fire just a couple feet at a time.  It is difficult on the lungs; firefighters like White work around ash, dust, dirt and smoke, and the mop-up crew takes frequent mini-breaks to guzzle water and straighten up their backs after swinging the tools and crouching down to the earth.
    
"It's tiring," White said. "You just gotta know how to use your tools and stuff, and not wear your body out doing it."
    
Mop-up work begins as soon as the fire has left the area. White was working on her piece of the fireline while only about 6 percent of the perimeter of the Pilot Fire was under control. By Thursday, containment was up to about 70 percent.

The idea is to make sure that a fire, once out, stays out. It's also an important precursor to the work that comes later to stabilize the soil from erosion and reestablishing the plant life, said Kat Kirby, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center. Once the mop-up is done, a team of soil specialists and biologists and others come it to evaluate the burned area and recommend rehab for the terrain.
    
Wet-mop means putting water onto the burned edge of the fire line, digging up smoldering root balls from the burned plants to douse them with water. Dry-mop means mixing dirt into the ashes.

San Bernardino National Forest crews work on the Pilot Fire behind Ryan Nuckols’ home in Hesperia, California on August 9th, 2016.
San Bernardino National Forest crews work on the Pilot Fire behind Ryan Nuckols’ home in Hesperia, California on August 9th, 2016.
Dan Tuffs for KPCC

"There's some barbed wire over here, so if you guys come over here, just be careful," U.S. Forest Service firefighter Mason Blair warned White and another firefighter. "We're starting to find all the hot spots close to the line, we're trying to make sure they're all extinguished so nothing can get past across the line."
    
The work can last anywhere from a couple days to a few weeks, depending on the terrain and the vegetation it burned.

"It's a lot of smoke-stomping, and, this is a big part of the job, too. Making sure everything is secure," he said.

On Sunday when the fire broke out shortly after noon in an area called Pilot Rock, White worked a 27-hour shift cutting fire line and assisting the hot-shot firefighters who attack on the front lines. Her crew got to rest by Monday afternoon. On Tuesday, they were assigned to mop-up duty far from active flames.
    
"It's not glamorous, the TV cameras go away by the time we're into the mop-up work," said Alex Viktora of the federal WildlandFire Lessons Learned Center in Arizona. He studies fire mishaps, and the findings are published with a view to improving firefighting standards and safety.
    
He said California's drought has felled many big trees whose burned root systems pose hidden dangers for mop-up crews.

"Sometimes what we see is these root tunnels collapsing under the weight of firefighters and some firefighters have gone up to their waist in these scalding hot ash pits," Viktora said.

A firefighter working mop-up on the Dutch Creek Fire in Northern California was killed by a falling burned tree limb in 2008. The lessons learned from that fatality have changed the fire service standards for posting medical care closer to firefighters on mop-up duty.

A message of thanks left on highway 173 for the fire fighting crews working on the Pilot Fire in California on August 9th, 2016.
A message of thanks left on highway 173 for the fire fighting crews working on the Pilot Fire in California on August 9th, 2016.
Dan Tuffs for KPCC

After a couple of days on the fire line, White said she likes the work.

"Taking care of the forest, trying to make sure we save as much as we can, helping people and protecting the things that belong to them that they've worked hard for," she said. "And just, the all around job."    

With the continuing drought and high fire risk, it's likely she will get to do that all-around job several more times before fire season ends this winter.

Series: Forever Fire Season

This story is part of KPCC’s in-depth coverage of the new reality of year-round fire season in Southern California. Over the next few weeks we'll cover those affected by the summer's destructive wildfires and efforts to develop better firefighting tools and reduce the risk of property damage.

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts and questions below in the comments section or on our Facebook page.