Ritter Bethel, who grew up in North Fork and is now raising his family there, has been fighting fires for the U.S. Forest Service since 1996. Bethel, a module leader, and his crew of four on Engine 52 were preparing to demobilize on Patriot’s Day, Sept. 11, after fighting the Railroad Fire for 14 straight days.
The 811 personnel still in the Railroad Fire base camp at Ahwahnee Hills Regional Park had an opportunity with the fire 75% contained to recognize and honor those emergency workers and others who lost their lives, or whose lives were affected in so many ways following the four terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Bethel along with others heard Andy Isolano, a firefighter, tell about his experiences that day in New York City and in the days following and how that incident has impacted his life.
The USFS Clearwater fire station off Mammoth Road in Madera County is home for Engine 52, although the engine and crew can be sent to locations in northern or southern Calififornia, and, occasionally, out of state “because we’re a national resource,” Bethel said.
Fighting fires has taken Bethel and his crew to Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Montana, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, and North Carolina.
He described a “typical” day when assigned to a fire the magnitude of the Railroad Fire which had burned 12,407 acres on the day Bethel took a short time-out for this interview.
☆ 5 a.m.: Wake-up and rehab. Windshields on engines are washed, fluid levels are checked and lunches, and ice water are stowed away.
☆ 6 a.m.: Briefing. Information about the entire fire is disseminated. “We’re given training, weather and fire behavior (and any major changes in the fire) while we were asleep. We’re given priorities for (fighting) the fire that day.”
That is followed by divisional breakout briefings depending on the section or area the crew will be sent. Those areas are determined by roads or terrain. A sub-briefing follows that. “We get our operational mission for the day, who’s going to be where and exactly what we’ll be doing.”
Communication equipment is checked to insure it can be used to effectively get messages to and from crews.
Then the engine and crew travel to the fire.
“I must assess and implement our work for the day,” Bethel said. “Keeping my crew safe is my top priority.”
On the fire line, crews may be cutting fire lines (creating a break in fuel for the fire), putting down hose lays (making it possible to get water where needed), and they may also be supervising bulldozer operators and tree fallers.
Work days are 16 hours long and then it is back to the base for dinner, housekeeping tasks (the trash from the day has to be disposed of) and sleep. Next day - Repeat above.
Leather boots and gloves, a helmet, flame-resistant Nomex pants and long-sleeved shirts are worn for protection.
Each firefighter carries a two-layer aluminum and fiberglass blanket that can be used as a shield should the fire become a threat to their lives. Other line gear carried by each person includes their lunch or other food and water, all contributing to a pack that may weigh from 30-45 pounds.
A 40-pound hose pack might be added to that. The clothing, gear, heat generated by the fire on top of 100-degree plus days can create extreme conditions.
Fighting the Railroad Fire offered additional challenges.
“We have snags, bug-kill pine trees which are basically dead, standing trees,” Bethel said. “This is in addition to fuel from brush and grasses. It’s difficult to stop fires under these conditions because the dead trees are a major safety concern.”
During the day, it is easier to assess and isolate an area prone to falling snags, he said. If it is necessary to fight the fire at night - he and his crew worked until 3 a.m. the day following the start of the Railroad Fire - “it is smokey and dark, really difficult to see and identify hazardous trees. You hear a tree crack and you know it’s falling but not knowing if you should move right, left, uphill or downhill. “Logs and trees break loose and roll over our fire lines and spread the fire,” he added.
Conditions such as low fuel moisture, weather patterns (including winds), and terrain must constantly be monitored to insure the safety of the firefighters and “you must adjust your tactics because of lack of resources at times,” he said.
Bethel speaks of the hardships families of firefighters suffer. Studies have shown divorce rates among firefighters to be higher than those of the general public.
He is married to Alyssa and they have four children. “When I was in Texas and Arizona in 2011, I spent over 100 days out of state, away from family,” he said. “It takes a special wife and companion at home to have that support to allow me to do this important job of fighting fires, and saving people’s lives and homes.”
At Base Camp
The base camp for the Railroad Fire (on the grounds of the Ahwahnee Hills Regional Park) that has been home for the past 14 days for Ritter and his crew is equivalent to a small city complete with: a laundromat on wheels, showers, pop-up tents, mobile sleepers (a large dorm on wheels with AC), a kitchen and covered dining area, stacks of equipment that might be needed including chain saws and hand tools, a fuel station and an area where lunch, drinks and ice are stocked.
There are other locations for briefings, a medical team, and an auto shop where trucks and other equipment are repaired. There are the trailers housing the Incident Command Post where the logistics, mapping, communications, supply ordering, repairs and planning are all coordinated. This little portable city housed 1,000 personnel at the height of the operation.
As Bethel points out different areas of the camp, he readily acknowledges all of the efforts that go into creating a team that can fight fires - ground support teams who bring out the extra hose if needed, who transport members of the team to their homes if there is an emergency there and the engine has not been released from the fire. And, he is quick to include those not here at the base camp, but who are a part of the air attack on the fire.
He is definitely ready to return home for a couple of days and finds out he will not be returning to his station after his days off. He, his crew and Engine 52 will be going back to the Railroad Incident.
The resources assigned to it are shrinking and the South Central Sierra Interagency Incident Management Team will hand off responsibility for handling it to those at the local level. Eventually there will be people surveying the area to be sure “the fire behaves,” Bethel said.
NOTE: For additional photos, see www.sierrastar.com.