72 Hours on the Fire Line, Every Week

Armando Alvarez has been fighting some of California’s worst fires for 15 years, working shifts that can go well beyond his regular hours and last up to 18 days.

Armando Alvarez (Rebecca Clarke)

This summer has been a part of what is on track to be one of California’s worst wildfire years of all time: After five years of drought, California’s forests have dried up, causing some 5,375 wildfires this year to date. The Los Angeles Times reported that the first half of 2016 saw twice as many acres burned than all of 2015. On August 27th, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) reported that about 4,270 fires had burned more than 183,000 acres in their jurisdiction—up from 3,904 fires on that day last year. While most fires happen on less-developed land, the ones that occur where homes meet wildland vegetation are often harder and costlier to fight, as firefighters try to salvage properties. Fires caused by dry conditions and brutal heat waves have scorched many homes and thousands of acres, and the worst has yet to come as peak fire season starts in September.

This leaves firefighters battling larger, more frequent fires in the state. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Armando Alvarez, who has been a firefighter at Cal Fire for 15 years, about the challenges of predicting how to put out fires as they crop up more often, the stress that accompanies emergency calls, and what it was like to work an 18-day shift. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Adrienne Green: What inspired you to become a firefighter?

Armando Alvarez: I'm from Los Angeles, California, so growing up I always got excited when I would see the fire engine driving down the street on a code three [driving with sirens and flashing lights]. To become a firefighter, you’ve got to get an education. I went to college right after high school, and then I took the fire academy route. Then I got a job with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) and I've been with them for 15 years.

Green: What is an average day like as a firefighter?

Alvarez: Some days are good, and some days are bad. Some days are normal routine: Wake up, have coffee and breakfast at 7:00 a.m. around the kitchen table [in the firehouse], and we talk about what we're going to do today. We just go from there. You run 9-1-1 calls, and just try to stay up to date with the training.

Every 9-1-1 call is different. Some calls are quick and simple, like an elderly person that has a stomachache, and sometimes as serious as somebody got in a vehicle accident and they're trapped underneath the vehicle. We're an all-risk fire department, so we respond to anything from a public assist to a wildland fire, or a house fire, or a car accident.

Green: Is there a particular call that you had to respond to that really stuck with you?

Alvarez: One of my worst ones would probably be going to a medical call where an infant is not breathing or has difficulty breathing. You're trying to drive there as fast as you can to try to help the child that's having respiration issues. Being a brand new father of a baby myself, and getting that 9-1-1 call for an infant, always hits the hardest.

Green: How do you deal with the stress of those kinds of calls?

Alvarez: I always want to talk to my engine company [a fire department unit]. Once I get back to the firehouse, it's always good to open up and talk to the guys, like, “How's everybody feeling?” You don't want to keep that bottled up inside yourself, because it's just going to fester and it's just going to make everything worse.

Alvarez: With Cal Fire, we work a three-day shift, so we stay at the firehouse for three days, 72 hours, and we're at home for four days. So it's three days on, four days off. But, over here in California, that schedule goes out the window a lot of times when there's big wild land emergencies, because our weather's so hot and dry. Either we're on the fire, or the other shift is on a fire and we have to be there at the firehouse to respond to other emergencies.

I literally just got off work yesterday. I've been stuck on duty for 18 days. So for 18 days, I have not seen my wife or my daughter. It takes a toll on you sometimes, but I still call and text my wife to see how she’s doing, she’ll send me pictures of the baby. It definitely puts a smile on my face.

Green: What has motivated you to stay at the same job for 15 years?

Alvarez: I really love this job. One thing that I really love is, a lot of times you'll be driving the fire engine by the elementary school, and you see the kids out there waving to you with a big old Colgate smiles. This is the job. I know it sounds cheesy, but just seeing the kids get excited—they want you to honk the horn, and they're waving like it's a parade—that makes it all worthwhile.

Green: How does the danger of putting out fires factor into your opinion of your job?

Alvarez: That's why we do a lot of training all the time, because everything is more modern nowadays, so we always have to stay up to date with new residential structures. More houses have sprinkler systems or electronics, and so we’ve got to be aware of that situation. As for vehicles, a lot of cars are electronic now, so [in the case of a collision] we have to know the force of impact. In the case of a car accident, how are we going to try to get the individuals out of the vehicle without causing more injury to them or ourselves?

Green: What is it like to tackle a wildfire?

Alvarez: Every wildland fire is different. For running grass fires, a firefighter can use a 20-foot hose to spray water in front of the fire [to stop it from spreading]. For a bigger incident, where there is a lot more fire because of heavy timber or brush, you might have to put a three- or four-hundred foot hose onto your back and hike to lay the hose around the fire.

Green: How long does it take to put out a fire?

Alvarez: Every fire’s different depending on the rate of spread, the terrain, and topography. If you have a slow rate of spread and you have enough fire personnel on scene—as far as engines, water tenders, helicopters, and airplanes that can drop water and fire retardant—we shouldn't be there too long. If we have major fires where it surpasses a 24-hour burn period, you're there for an extended amount of time, depending on how many acres and the topography the fire's running up on.

I've been on some fires where you're out there fighting the fire for a good 15 days or more. If you go to a fire that's out in the Valley, where it's grass and brush, you can do a quick fire attack on it and probably only stay there for about four or five hours.

Green: That sounds exhausting.

Alvarez: Oh yeah. That's why in situations like that, they have shifts so you're out on the fire line for about 24 hours. When you're out there, you're patrolling the fire and putting it out. Then the next 24 hours, you come back in the base camp and you're on rest and relaxation for another 24 hours. The other engine company then goes out there for their 24 hours. Somebody's always on the fire line.

Green: What is the most rewarding and the most challenging parts of your job?

Alvarez: The most challenging part, I would say, is just being away from family. A lot of times you miss the holidays, but at the same time, that's the most rewarding. You come home and you get to see the family again. For example, I was gone for 18 days. I got home yesterday, and I got to see my daughter. She opened the door, and she saw me, she just started running towards me with open arms screaming, “Dada.” That definitely put a smile on my face.

Green: How do you think your job influences your identity?

Alvarez: For me personally, this is the greatest country ever. I love everything we stand for. I think firefighters have a great job. We have a lot of support from the community, so giving back to the community [is a part of my identity]. As a fireman, we respond to 9-1-1 calls because people have an emergency and they want us there to mitigate the situation. As far as on my days off, I like to help out at the Jesus Center to try to give back to the community by feeding the less fortunate. I tell my wife that if we have clothing that we haven't worn for six months or more, we need to donate it because there are other people that would definitely love it.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a paramedic, a police officer, and a park ranger.