Firefighters Work To Contain Last Embers Of Massive Rim Fire

Sep 6, 2013
Originally published on September 10, 2013 4:20 pm
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The massive Rim Fire in Yosemite National Park is nearly contained. The fire burned more than 300 square miles in and around the park. One of the crews doing the last bit of work is the Geronimo Hotshots from the San Carlos Apache reservation in Arizona. You may remember them from last week. We met them just as they headed off to Yosemite. NPR's Kirk Siegler caught up with one member of the crew yesterday on the eastern flank of the Rim Fire.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Usually, this time of year, Tioga Road would be humming with cars packed with tourists wanting one more chance to cross the High Sierra before the snow flies. Instead, it's closed to everyone but fire personnel, cloaked in dense smoke and buzzing with chainsaws.

A crew of firefighters in hardhats has just cut down a scorched 90-foot-high old growth fir tree. Better to bring it down now. It's too close to the road.

Burned branches and ash are strewn everywhere. Another crew hooks up to a water truck to douse any last stubborn hot spots.

BRIAN PIPPEN: Yeah. Scouting the line, mapping the lines so we can come back later and rehab it since we are in a national park.

SIEGLER: As field observer, one of Brian Pippen's main jobs is to make sure embers don't cross this road and ignite spot fires on the other side. Yesterday, there were three. A chopper doused them quickly with water.

PIPPEN: On this other side, there's not much to keep it from going - capping this part of the Sierras and going down towards Yosemite Valley.

SIEGLER: One ridge over, across one of Yosemite's giant slabs of granite, the Geronimo Hotshot Crew has been spiked out for the past five days.

You're going downhill, down the canyon?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That's what they said, but we...

SIEGLER: That means they don't go back to the main fire camp 30 miles down the mountain from here when their shift is up. They sleep next to the line they're digging.

JEFF BELVADO: One shower so far in 12 days.

SIEGLER: Jeff Belvado is a squad boss for the Geronimo Hotshots, a Native American crew from the San Carlos Apache Reservation in Arizona. He's waiting for the all clear to hook back in with the rest of his crew.

BELVADO: When I was back in camp today, they asked me, what are you guys doing, mopping up? What? You know, we're still out there burning, you know? We're out at night, you know, trying to tie - button this last piece up.

SIEGLER: Belvado says he wouldn't have it any other way. It's a sign of just how good this crew is. They're among only a few left digging the last stretch of the containment line on what's become one of the biggest blazes in California history. They dig and clear trees and brush by hand through the night. But work is starting to wear on the guys.

BELVADO: Bad knees, bad ankles, bad foot. Hotshot knees is what they call it.


SIEGLER: Being away from girlfriends, wives, brothers and sisters back home is also starting to get old. But at the same time, most people are used to it, and firefighting is a family affair for many back on the reservation.

BELVADO: You know, growing up, I smell, you know, I used to smell my dad coming home and smell the fire on his clothes.

SIEGLER: Belvado's dad was the first superintendent for the Globe Arizona Hotshots. It's another crew just up the road from San Carlos Apache Reservation. It's times like these toward the end of a 14-day assignment that Belvado remembers his dad used to have it a lot tougher. During the Yellowstone fires of 1988, he once left home for 60 days. But leaving the isolated reservation and going to large, high-profile wildfires is important.

BELVADO: You want to go out and you want to represent, you know, for everybody back home, you know, not just in San Carlos, but the region and, you know, Arizona. You want to be able to show people and do a good job out here and stand behind your work and say, you know, Geronimo did this.

SIEGLER: The Geronimos will be up here through tomorrow, then it's a 12-hour drive home Sunday. They may get out on one more fire yet this season unless the snow starts falling. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Mariposa, California. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.