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Local firefighters reflect on Walker Fire

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Walker Fire

A fire rages near a fire truck during the Walker Fire in Plumas County in September.

Wake up at 6 a.m. for a morning briefing, drive an hour-and-a-half to the fireline for a full day’s work protecting buildings and putting out spot fires – among other assignments – and head back to camp to shower, eat and get some sleep to start again the next day.

This was the routine that Calaveras Consolidated Fire Protection District (CCFPD) firefighter Logan Hussey lived for nine days on the Walker Fire in Plumas County, about 200 miles north of Calaveras County.

The 26-year-old Valley Springs native was one of 18 Mother Lode-based firefighters sent out with a strike team to battle the blaze that at the time, was the largest in the country.

The fire started on Sept. 4, burned 54,612 acres, destroyed nine structures and was 98% contained as of Sept. 20.

For young firefighters looking to advance their careers, going out on a strike team to fight wildfires across the state is a stepping stone for many. The experience of spending weeks on the frontlines can offer young professionals a broader look into the career opportunities before them, along with a decent chunk of change to bring back home.

In August of 2015, Hussey was balancing a nine-to-five job, playing in a band and volunteering part-time for CCFPD. He had come to the realization that he couldn’t give enough time and energy to the district, so he turned in his gear bag. Two weeks later, a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. line sparked against a tree in Amador County – the Butte Fire had ignited and was rapidly spreading through northeastern Calaveras County.

Hussey said he tried to get signed up with the district to help battle the blaze, but his paperwork wasn’t processed in time.

“That stuck with me for the last four years,” Hussey said in a phone interview on Sept. 20, a few days after returning home from the Walker Fire.

Last year, after seeing car accidents and medical issues involving close friends, Hussey took an emergency medical technician class, earned a certificate and rejoined CCFPD as an intern in January of 2019. In June, he graduated from a local fire academy as the top recruit.

Working at the station in Valley Springs when he got the call “that we might finally be sent out,” Hussey was eager for his first opportunity to work on a wildland fire.

“I said, ‘Yep, I’ll pack my bags right now,’” he said.

The Walker Fire, at the time, was the largest burning wildfire in the country, and the first one of the year that CCFPD personnel were sent out on, according to Calaveras Consolidated Chief Rich Dickinson.

Along with those from CCFPD, the strike team consisted of firefighters from Central Calaveras Fire and Rescue Protection District, Columbia Fire Protection District, Altaville Melones Fire Protection District and Sonora Fire Department. They were also supported by a crew from the Summit Ranger District of the Stanislaus National Forest.

“We were out there for nine days and everybody got along just fine and worked together,” Hussey said. “It was a good group of guys.”

Dickinson, the strike team leader, said the team tackled a variety of assignments, including protecting historical cabins inside an unburned area of snowbrush, triaging structures (inspecting for fire safety), conducting backfiring operations and putting out spot fires.

He said he has been working on wildland fires for more than 20 years, but what made this one particularly challenging was the drastic change in climate from the brush and grasslands of western Calaveras County to the heavily forested, mountainous terrain of eastern Plumas County, where the elevation climbed as high as 6,000 feet and temperatures dropped below freezing at times.

“Timber is a different model than the brush and grass model – you have crowning, torching of trees, and it’s a very intense fire when the forest is burning,” he said.

At CCFPD, the work is primarily responding to incidents on a more short-term basis, whereas on a “campaign” wildland fire, “You’re going away from home for a long period of time, sometimes you don’t have phone service to make contact back home, you’re in the elements for 12 to 20 hours, and it’s a slow build-up of your body breaking down,” Dickinson said. “It’s work, eat, sleep, get up again, work, eat, sleep, and just keep doing that every day. After eight or nine days you start to wear down.”

Beyond the intense physical demands, the experience can expose firefighters to new areas and types of fires and allow them to network and, in some cases, make lifelong friends, Dickinson said.

“I had never been in a situation where the wind changed direction so many times in such a short amount of time, (or seen) how the topography factors into how fast the fire moves,” Hussey said, adding that he enjoyed sharing stories and experiences with firefighters from other districts in Calaveras County. Even though Sonora, Columbia, Angels Camp and Mountain Ranch aren’t that far away from CCFPD’s service area, “Everyone has different experiences, and the types of calls are all different because of the landscapes.”

For now, Hussey’s testing the waters.

“I’m trying to see whether I like wildfire fighting or (if I should) go for a city job that may pay more,” Hussey said. “It depends on what I fall in love with.”

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Reporter

Davis graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in Environmental Studies. He covers environmental issues, agriculture, fire and local government. Davis spends his free time playing guitar and hiking with his dog, Penny.

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