LAYTONVILLE, Calif. — The sun has barely peaked up over the mountain-top as the citizens of Laytonville, California rise to face the morning. As sleep filled eyes slowly awaken to the reality of the day, it is the sense of smell that first and foremost reminds everyone – just up the road, the fires are still burning.
Follow U.S. Highway 101 out through this sleepy northern California town toward Oregon, and there’s an incident base camp on outskirts. What was once an open field now serves as the launching off point for nearly 1200 individuals; fire fighters, support personnel, a cadre of aviation assets, and a fleet of fire fighting vehicles.
Even at this god-awful early hour, the camp is already abuzz with activity as the small army of fire fighters from all over the country load up into their lumbering vehicles and head out to points north, east, south, and west.
It is here, in what has become known as National Guard City, where 1st Lt. Daniel Pauley of Galt, California prepares his crew of 19 California National Guardsmen to take the fight to the enemy.
In this case, the enemy manifests as a series of lightening strikes on July 30 that ignited a tinderbox of densely forested land just begging for a reason to spark up. Severe drought conditions across the state have left a build up of dry under brush, thirsty, brown grass and other combustible material laying fallow; nature’s Molotov cocktail just waiting for the ignition.
“This whole thing is similar in so many ways to combat,” says Pauley, a former Marine and combat veteran.
Pauley is one of some 240 California Guardsmen’s activated into state service, organized under the banner of Task Force 340th. Half of the 240 Soldiers are here in Layonville, the others, spread out across the northern regions of the state. The Soldiers come from all over, representing 10 different units. Skill sets range from finance specialist to infantry, but here they have one purpose – support the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (Cal-Fire) in putting out the fire.
“We get our morning briefs, we’re updated on what the fire … the enemy … what it is doing, what our mission is for the day and we head out,” the lieutenant said.
Before heading out, pre combat checks/pre combat inspections are performed. The hand crews will be out anywhere between 12 to 24 hours, so forgetting something really isn’t an option.
As a Type 2 hand crew, Pauley’s team can be tasked to pull brush, perform area rehabilitation, put out hot spots and flare-ups, dig out scratch lines as well as pulling hose. On this day, their efforts focus on road rehabilitation. With Cal Fire’s captain Burt Byers leading the way, the crew loads up into an LMTV and heads out.
Byer’s extended cab, Ford F-350 turns onto Branscome Road, heading west toward the Pacific Ocean. The LMTV follows. It’s roughly 25 miles of curvaceous road between Highway 101 on the east and California State Route 1 to the far west. Some 12 mils into the journey, the team hook a right off of the main road and begin the trek up and back into the forests.
After a few false starts and turning around of vehicles, the crew pulls into a clearing. Pauley has everyone stand by as Byers moves further down the road to investigate the day’s works site. Nearly half an hour later, Byers returns.
He informs the guardsmen there is no way the LMTV is going to make it down the road, its too narrow, too steep on the sides and the truck is too heavy for the road.
“Leave the tools here, we’re not going to need them today,” Byers calls out.
The crews get to work unloading the big military vehicle, throw everything into the back of the pick-ups and are shuttled to the work site.
Reassembled, Byers gives the team a safety brief and their mission brief.
“We’ve got a creek we have to cross, and then up a small hill with very lose ground,” the grizzled Cal-Fire veteran tells them. “Remember, when crossing a creek, make sure you always look ahead of you. Pick the next two to three rocks you’re moving to before you do it.”
The team responds with a resounding HUAH and someone yells out “Hook it up!” The Soldiers fall into a single-file line and smartly move out.
“Amy Winehouse. ‘E’, to you,” a voice belonging to Pauley says.
Keeping themselves entertained as the walk along the narrow pathway, a small group of Soldiers are playing the band-game while others chatter amongst themselves. Think of a band or artist, call it out, the next player then has to think of a band or artist that begins with the last letter of the name just stated. Bands can’t be repeated.
“Evanescence. ‘E’ again, to you,” says Stockton, California resident, Spc. Rafael Barreras.
The exchange goes round and round until the line comes to the creek where the game takes a break and the Soldiers get serious. Byers reminds them to watch their step as they cross and to help each other out. Hop-skip-jump across the creek they go until all of team is on the other side. Byers leads them to the base of a loose patch of road along a moderately steep incline.
“At the top there’s piles of brush, we need to pull it out and place it on this dirt road,” Byers explains.
Early in this fire, bulldozers came along building a dozer line where they cut large swaths of road to contain and control the fire in the event it spread this far. With the Lodge Lightening Complex fire nearly contained, its time for crews to go back over those dozer lines performing road rehabilitation. Byers explains the rehabilitation prevents dozer lines from turning into a mud slides when the rains return.
One by one, the Soldiers scramble up the hillside. The ground under foot crumbles at their step, for every two steps taken, the Soldiers slide back a half step.
“Watch your dime!” Pauley reminds his troops.
Watch your dime – a common refrain as the troops move up the hill. Pauley explains, “We learned in fire class to maintain ten feet between ourselves and the person in front of you. They call that watching your dime.”
Ten feet, enough time for anyone below to get out of the way of the other common refrain – “ROCK!” As these troopers learned in their three-day fire school, out here, rock is the word for anything that gets away and is hurtling down toward unsuspecting Soldiers below.
Once they reach the top, the crew gets busy pulling brush and laying it out on the road in a criss-cross pattern. As they slowly work back down the hillside, they cut-up with each other in classic Soldier fashion. Classic with a technology update – the jokes chop-busting now include references to Facebook profile pics, Instagram postings and twitter feeds.
“Enigma. ‘A’ to you,” calls out Spc. Rudy Gutierrez.
The work is arduous and the Soldiers are drenched in sweat as, even in the shade of the forest, the temperatures push into the low-90s. Down the road they continue until Byers tells them they’re good on this particular stretch.
“This is nothing,” Byers informs the team. “Wait until you see the next stretch we’ve got to work.”
His face has the knowing grin of a man who’s done this many, many times. Byers is a 22-year veteran of Cal-Fire and a retiree called back into service for this operation, he has indeed seen this, many, many times.
Byers decides before they strike out for the next location, its lunch time and the crew gets a much needed rest. The band game continues, the cutting up continues and someone informs the rest of the group he’s going to take a picture of and Instagram his lunch sack. Cal Fire sack lunches are something of a legend. When you’re expected to be out at a remote site for a 24-hour stretch, a legendary lunch that might very well be lunch, dinner and breakfast are appreciated.
“Allright you lot, five minutes and we’re moving out,” Byers states as he crumples up the remains of his lunch and consults his map one more time.
“Anthrax. ‘X’ to you,” Barreras says to Pauley.
“Ohhhhh, X is a killer,” someone groans.
Reaching the base of the next location, Byers earlier, prophetic warning doesn’t do justice to the hill in front of the Soldiers. The dozer line itself is entirely too loose for the team to make their way some 1,500 feet up along a near 45 degree slope. So they’re left with walking along side the dozer line, working switch backs and moving from tree to tree as they make the leg cramping climb.
An hour or so later, the entire team is sitting on the hilltop, catching their breath. They survey their surroundings, stretch out and get back on it. The climb up was difficult, the traverse back down is treacherous. Between limbs crashing onto the dozer line and sliding feet, the call of “ROCK!” is heard on several occasions. They help each other back up as they fall, slide, dust themselves off and stand back up.
“I’m out. I’ve got nothing on ‘X’,” Pauley says.
Someone hollers out “X-Clan. ‘N’ to you,” the game goes on.
At the base of the hill, Byers has a mix of good news and bad news for the crew. The day was supposed to be a 12-hour shift, but the crew is needed in other locations and 12 just turned to 24.
“Let’s go back to base camp, get a hot dinner and we’ll head back to where we were the other night,” Byers says to the crew.
The idea of hot chow raises the spirits of the Soldiers as they make their way back to the pick-ups, load up and reconvene with the LMTV.
“For most of these guys, they’re absolutely thrilled to be out here,” says Pauley. “To be here, actually doing something for our community sure beats the monotony of drill.”
Beyond the excitement of serving and working with Cal Fire, Pauley said his team saw the proof of their work when they revisited a previous work site.
“To see where the fire burned right up to the line you helped cut and didn’t go any further really makes you feel like you’re doing something, makes you feel like you’re making a difference,” he says.
In addition to the sense of pride, Pauley notes he has a better understanding of Cal Fire and the work they do.
“They (Cal-Fire) clearly appreciate us being out here working along side them and they’ve been absolutely fantastic to us,” says Pauley. “
The ride back to base camp is well over an hour but moral is obviously high as the team sits together at one long table, chit-chatting about the day, wondering what they’ll be doing that night.
Barreras looks up from his plate, “New Order. ‘R’ to you,” he says.
There’s nothing coming with the ‘R’ Barreras wins. It all starts over.