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On the Fire Line, Grueling Work and a Shared Purpose


Fitness is another requirement of the trade. Along with some 40 hours of classroom training, firefighters typically have to show they can walk 45 minutes wearing a 45-pound weighted vest, a substitute for the heavy packs they must carry into the fire zones.

Those packs include not only their equipment, radios, food, water, but also a portable fire shelter that the firefighter can rapidly deploy if the flames come too close. Federal officials have required firefighters to carry the small, collapsible tents since 1977, and they have been credited with saving hundreds of lives, but they are a last resort. Made of layers of materials like foil and silica weave, they can shelter firefighters from smoke and high heat, but cannot protect against direct contact with flames.

Digging a line is grinding work, said Sam Rogers, a crew captain with Cal Fire. Rough terrain requires firefighters to clear and dig by hand, hour after hour, day after day, in the heat and smoke, cutting a strip 8 feet or more across.

“A really fast line cut, you’re only cutting 500 feet an hour,” he said. “If you get a mile of line cut a day, you’re doing good.” He and his crew have spent recent weeks fighting the LNU Lightning Complex fire.

It is also grueling, said Marcus Bovarie, a self-described “line grunt” and former member of inmate crews who is now on Captain Rogers’ team, “digging trenches, swinging axes, using chain saws — we take heavy brush and reduce it to a dirt road.”

Mr. Whittington, the former public information officer, has warned that the consequences of a warming world are overtaking firefighting. To understand the changing nature of wildfire “means you have to change our whole approach — including our past practices, our current practices, the way we learn, the way we train,” he said in an interview. “it’s going to take a substantial amount of work to figure that out.”



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