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California Firefighter On Battling The Thomas Wildfire


The Thomas Fire in Southern California is now the fifth-largest fire in modern California history. It's burning through over 200,000 acres northwest of Los Angeles. Here are some numbers about the forces arrayed to fight that fire - 912 engines, 27 helicopters and almost 7,000 men and women.

One of them is Fred Burris, the Ventura County Fire Department battalion chief. Welcome to the program, Chief Burris.

FRED BURRIS: Good day.

SIEGEL: And first, tell us where you are right now. And what do you see there?

BURRIS: I'm in Fillmore, Calif., on the very eastern edge of the fire or the upwind edge of the fire. It's - you could consider this the rear of the fire. The main advance is moving western direction towards Santa Barbara and Carpinteria.

SIEGEL: And what's your role? What will you be doing?

BURRIS: Today I'll be out here working as a supervisor on the ground and preparing to take over this area tomorrow.

SIEGEL: I know you said that this fire, the Thomas Fire, is unlike any other fire you've worked on before. How so?

BURRIS: Well, it's - I've been on large fires before. But this one, just the day after day, shift after shift of 24 hours of full-on firefighting - and I contribute that, I think, to the - we've had a solid week of offshore Santa Ana winds. You know, a typical Santa Ana wind is, you know, 24 to 72 hours, sometimes a little bit longer. And then there's a - switches to our normal prevailing westerly winds. But this one's been blowing since last Monday when the fire started. And that's directly contributed to the large growth of this fire in addition to the fuels, the condition of the fuels and the topography. But the wind has been the dominant factor in the spread of this fire.

SIEGEL: You mentioned the 24-hour shifts. I guess it's 24 hours on, then 24 hours off.

BURRIS: That's correct.

SIEGEL: It sounds like deep into a shift your people would be awfully worn out. What's the virtue of having, say, 24 on, 24 off as opposed to 12 on and 12 off, which would also sound pretty difficult?

BURRIS: The benefit of a 24-hour shift is sometimes, and especially a fire like this one, it's very active at night. We're not shift changing in the middle of the active period. We're able to keep resources in place. And they can start on something at 6 p.m. knowing that they have all night to finish it. It gives good continuity to the tactics and flexibility to get those things done over a 24-hour period.

SIEGEL: Do you worry about fatigue among your firefighters working these long shifts? How long can they keep on going at this rate?

BURRIS: We - I think that we can keep going for a long time. We're - while this fire is large, as far as - the work is very similar to what we do all summer long, you know, starting in May to - normally around December it ends. But the whole system out here, the whole - the job I do, the jobs above me, all of that effort is pointed at the sharp end of the stick. That is the firefighter on the ground with a hand tool or a hose line or a pilot with a bucket on the bottom of a helicopter. It's to get that work done and to give them what they need and to help them to continue to do it shift after shift.

SIEGEL: You know, it sounds like such incredibly intense work that you're doing. I'm just wondering in this fire, is there a particular moment so far that is the most memorable among all of these intensely memorable moments for you?

BURRIS: Well, you know, without a doubt for me was I was responsible for my own neighborhood. And when the fire blew down into my neighborhood and I drove down in there and I was - it took me - when I first arrived, I was somewhat disoriented because the smoke and the ash and the ember and the darkness of it. And it wasn't until when I looked and I saw my neighbor's fence on fire.

SIEGEL: Are you saying you didn't even recognize the neighborhood at first?

BURRIS: Well, I recognized my house when I drove by and I saw that my family had left. And I was happy about that. But a couple streets down we stopped at the edge of the smoke and it took me a second to get myself oriented to where I actually was. And, you know, there was some damage in our neighborhood, but certainly we are spared compared to how some other areas did.

SIEGEL: Fred Burris, Ventura County Fire Department battalion chief, thanks for talking with us today. And thanks for all your work.

BURRIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.