Albuquerque Journal: On the Fire Lines, Bravery Never Ends

July 2011

By Lauren Sachs

Inside the Tesuque Fire Station, a group of around 30 individuals gathered to discuss the alarming state New Mexico found itself to be in. People were tense, for the fire near Los Alamos caused Tesuque residents to consider their own possible plans for evacuation.

Emergency supply packets were placed upon tables, and methods of house-fire evacuations were spelled out for us in the quick clarity of firefighter lingo. Luckily, the growing tension was broken by the presence of a little girl; her bright red raincoat left us looking down at her hopefully, though she also stood as a reminder of the choices we must make in what to take with us or leave behind during an emergency evacuation.

Now the fires have more or less subsided, and the monsoon season, though mild as it is, still relieves us of our daily worries surrounding the fires. However, the combination of fire and rainfall in areas near the Los Alamos National Labs and its surrounding test sites, some which have been left dormant since the nuclear testing of the ’40s, does leave some people a bit on edge.

While in the fire department, as the community meeting progressed, the garage doors were opened to allow in the last rays of sun to lighten the space. A few individuals left momentarily to view the storm clouds collect above the lingering smoke, while one of the two female firefighters brought out a wildfire simulation created by the programming group Red Fish. The simulation is a map projected onto sand, which is built up to show the varying heights of the surrounding mountain ranges. The map accurately models wildfires traveling through New Mexico terrain with adjustable wind velocities. We were shown the Pacheco and Los Conchas fires enveloping our drought-ridden New Mexico from above.

Thanks to the firefighters’ often 18-hour shifts and to the daily flying Tenders, helicopters we’ve all been witnessing making circles above the hills, we are seeing and breathing in the progress. Various reservations have been allowing the Tenders to pick up water from their reservoirs ponds, lakes and wells. Each one carries around 200 gallons of water, but on its own this makes a small impact on the fires. Seeing them expand dangerously fast when the wind picks up, the main thought passing through a firefighters’ mind, firefighter T. Kirk Hicks says, is “Get the wet stuff on the hot stuff.” Dead piñions, juniper and wild grass set ablaze instantly; food for the fires, and the lack of moisture in the air, allows them to be eaten in seconds.

Luckily, Kirk says firefighters have methods for preventing fires from spreading across common fields of knee-high grass, which often carry it to open hills, ravines and residential areas. Their brush trucks are equipped with blue buckets of foam, dense soap suds that are flung across terrain threatened by oncoming flames. The foam, Kirk says, creates a viscous base the water can spread across, and like a damp sponge easily soaks up a spill, or like a cup filled to the brim which overflows when a drop of soap is added, the brush itself can willingly absorb whatever water is shot at it from above or at ground level.

As they work on containing the flames, firefighters set out routes in the moments they can before the wind changed their plans. If caught in a ravine apart from their trucks, the firefighters find themselves having to, as they call it, shake-n-bake: place themselves within small metallic body bags, they burrow beneath the soil with the hope that the fire will pass over them. During this deferment, a quick breath of air is out of the question. The heat radiating through the fireproof material is enough to drive one insane, to prayer, or to harness strength most of us will never know, and yet, the teams of firefighters never ceased to endure.

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