MI-WUK VILLAGE – It’s going to take more than a bucket of water and hoses to extinguish the Rim Fire.
The brightest minds in the firefighting industry realize they’re locked in a chess match with the hard-charging inferno – and they’ve called upon their best pieces to hopefully induce a checkmate.
With that in mind, members of the Manteca Fire strike team woke up Monday morning to a new set of orders. They were leaving camp in Tuolumne City to fight the Rim Fire from a different angle.
Their task: To protect and put at ease the residents of Mi-Wuk Village.
It wasn’t a glamorous detail, by any stretch of the imagination – not when a career fire swallows acreage by the thousands just miles away. But when dealing with a blaze this unpredictable and insatiable, every effort is instrumental in building containment.
“The reality is no one is fighting it head on,” Manteca Fire captain Keith Scott said. “The plan is to do indirect attacks. That’s why we have ’dozer lines and back-burns ... we’re trying to tie those lines together.”
The effort continued on Monday fighting what the U.S. Forest Service is now calling the largest active wildfire in the nation. Here’s an intimate look at how the Manteca Fire Four spent the first few hours of their shift in this smoky vacation community:
• • •
8:31 a.m. – Morning briefing
Manteca Fire joins the rest of the San Joaquin County strike team in the parking lot of Diamond Jim’s steakhouse along Highway 108. Normally, this would be a fun-loving dinner crowd, but those reservations will have to wait.
This is strictly a business call.
Commander Andy Kellogg clutches a map and goes over Monday’s objectives. With the Rim Fire burning voraciously on the south side of the Tuolumne River, this strike team’s focus is to safeguard cabins and homes, and interact with the residents. Help them, any way you can. “If you see an 80-year-old woman with a chainsaw,” Kellogg said, “just make sure she has enough gas and knows what she’s doing.”
• • •
9:20 a.m. – How’s the view?
Engine No. 332 rumbles to a stop on the shoulder of Pine Lake Drive, near where it dead-ends into a private driveway. The 100-acre property is home to a natural picture window that overlooks Duckwall Ridge, the site of major fire activity later in the afternoon.
However, at this time, nature’s beauty is covered in a sheet of smoke, which sits in the valleys and gorges like tule fog.
The crew begins to warm with the morning sun. They’re a cohesive group, a perfect blend of personality and humor, business and age.
Engineer Derek George, with his push-broom mustache and slick black shades cuts an intimidating presence. He even goes by the nickname “Wolf.”
Truth be told, though, he’s as tame as they come. George chats with a local resident hanging halfway out his Toyota truck in the middle of the popular T-intersection.
Armando Blanco has a quick wit about him. When Mike Loomis is asked about the tools they carry on a neighborhood patrol, he displays shelter and hose clamps. “... And a good pair of boots,” snaps Blanco, as the terrain changes under foot.
• • •
9:48 a.m. – All for one, one for all
Scott leads his crew through a residential check, following the protocol mapped out on a yellow placard. It’s like a report card for the homeowner. Scott says they’re checking for access, a water resource, at least 100 feet of defensible space and occupancy. When they’re done, they’ll leave the placard in a spot visible from the road for other fire crews and the resident(s).
All duties are performed as a team. No one is abandoned. No one is allowed to stray too far from the group. The crew splits into teams of two as they check a multi-level cabin near the country club. Loomis and Blanco walk the perimeter, checking for combustible items below the deck and side yards. Scott and George survey the deck and roof.
“This cabin’s in nice shape,” George says, giving it an “A” for fire defense.
• • •
10:04 a.m. – Dirty laundry
After six days on the road, living out of a bag and sleeping beneath the stars, the Manteca Fire Four are running low on clean socks and undies.
The crew hustles into Mi-Wuk Wash & Dry along 108 to change their loads. This is the first time they’ve got to wash their clothes since they arrived in the Mother Lode on Wednesday evening.
Scott reveals another dirty little secret. “I’d say every other day we’ve had a shower. ... Some of us are a little cleaner than others,” he says with a sly grin.
• • •
Noon(ish) – What’s in the bag?
Reconnaissance a few days earlier led to the discovery of a man-made park tucked away amid the trees and rolling granite. With its privacy, 100-year-old pines creating a canopy overhead and custom log benches, this was a serene lunchtime hangout.
The operative word being “was.”
Turns out, Manteca wasn’t the only crew to make the discovery. Before long, Lodi and Tracy sniffed out this cul-de-sac, turning the once-quiet circle into a busy food court.
Lunch came in two colors: a white paper bag and brown. White was for the vegetarians, and brown for the meat-eaters.
Blanco picked carefully through his white bag, passing on the bagel and cream cheese. He attempted to barter with George and his brown bag, but the “Wolf” can smell a ruse as it blooms. He rebukes Blanco’s offerings – assorted fruit – claiming he’s allergic to basically everything but steak and chicken.
“Tell you what,” Blanco says, “I’ll grill you a Buffalo steak when we get back.”
• • •
1:27 p.m. – Look, in the sky, it’s a ...
A patrol along the water’s edge at Sugar Pine Lake leads to three discoveries:
1. Phil Coke, a Sonora graduate and reliever with the Detroit Tigers, has a home nearby.
2. A bathroom.
3. Smoke! The day’s first sign of fire.
A cloud of smoke shoots into the sky above the tree line, curling like frozen yogurt swirl. “That wasn’t there a few seconds ago,” George says.
For this group of action-starved firemen, a puff of smoke in the air is exhilarating. Loomis emerges from the port-a-potty and eye-balls the smoke immediately. “Cool,” he says, tightening his belt.
• • •
1:45 p.m. – Ready and waiting
It’s back to the look-out point along Pine Lake Drive. A fire rages across the way, and with a strong headwind, you can see it sliding down the face of Duckwall Ridge. The property owner estimates the fire is about three miles away.
Soon, the rest of the San Joaquin County all-stars arrive. Lodi. Tracy. Stockton. Merced. All these firefighters can do is sit and watch as bulldozers cut a fire break line below and helicopters dump water from above.
For these firefighters, it’s a helpless feeling. They’re ready to fight this historic fire on the front lines, but they are needed elsewhere. They’re needed here, among the structures and the people of Mi-Wuk Village, safe-guarding a vacation community in harm’s way.
“At times, it does feel helpless,” said Stockton firefighter Ken Pesavento, “but when it comes you know there will be work to do.”
A well-timed joke breaks up the silence and keeps spirits high in a time of uncertainty and peril. A Lodi fireman draws a line in the sand with a tool.
“This is where we’ll fight it, boys.”