How to Fight Forest Fires

Uploaded by vice on Sep 7, 2012


MALE SPEAKER: Once you do it, you feel that adrenaline rush,
and you're on it until the end.
And you see it put to bed, and do some of the mop up, get it
cleaned up and rehab.
Once you get a season of that, it's in your blood, and
there's nothing else.

MALE SPEAKER: While the rest of the country is flipping its
lid over cyber crime, illegal aliens, and mutagenic fuel
gases, the Pacific Northwest still spends its summers
struggling with mankinds first and oldest enemy, fire, In the
last decade, hundreds of thousands of forest fires have
scorched 5.5 million acres of American land.
The average Oregon summer sees 561 wildfires damage 16,000
acres of often pristine forest, causing mind boggling
damage and devastation.
Last month we travel to Medford, Oregon to team up
with a firefighting crew from Grayback Forestry.
Their job is to amble right up to a roaring blaze and dig a
line around it, to choke the fire to death.
When there isn't a fire going, they cut back and relax by
walking up the side of a 45 degree cliff and clearing out
old underbrush, which provides fuel for these fires.
They're easily the hardest working
people in tree business.

THOMAS: Hey, it's Thomas.
It's five in the morning or something.
We're in Oregon, in a parking lot.
We're about to go into the forest and tear down trees so
that other trees don't catch fire.
The checkerboard.
MALE SPEAKER: Motor service, wilderness.
White is private, and the yellow is [INAUDIBLE].
SHANE STANCLIFF: Today the unit we're on now is in Rogue
River, which is a 45 minute drive.
It changes every different unit usually every week, or
every other week.
Now you've got to grab oil and stuff for the chainsaws.
We've got to file into this giant box on the back of a
pickup that they call a [INAUDIBLE].
I'm guessing for good reason.
It feels dumb, I mean these guys get up every morning at
this hour, but I feel like physically shaken.
Just not used to 5 o'clock.
It's probably a healthier way of doing things.
All right, I guess we've got to get in truck right now.
Somewhere around 5:30, 5:45, we'll load up the trucks that
we're taking out to the unit.
Get everything ready, make sure the tools are in there,
make sure we got enough fuel, and bio oil.

Then we'll all head out.
About 6 o'clock we leave the shop, and depending on how
far, usually a half hour to an hour it takes us
to get to the unit.
CRAIG FRANSISCO: You really get to know the
guys you work with.
Everyone's about the same age, and has the same interests.
I mean, we're working outside, so everyone loves the hiking.
If they're not into mountain biking, they're into like ATV
riding, or dirt biking.
Everyone fishes, likes camping.
So it's easy to get along with everyone, everyone's down to
earth and has the same interests.
Our oxygen tank is usually handkerchief over us.
And if you're smart about it and the smoke's going at you,
you just kind of step aside for a minute and let it pass
as the wind shifts if you can.
It's kind of rough.
Like I said, last year was my first season.
I didn't really have a long period away.
But it's like you're gone, you miss your family, and your
wife misses you and wants you home.
We did a fire here in town, in Roxy Ann's mountain.
Probably a two day night shift is what I did, and
then that was out.
Before we come into something like this,
we'll have a briefing.
And whoever's like the incident commander of the fire
at the time will kind of tell us what to expect, what to
look out for.
We don't just show up and just like start running
at it with our tools.
Here's a fire, let's put it out.
They usually have a pretty good plan.

Usually we'll do the bucket drops with the helicopters.
Dropping water on them, dropping retardant on them to
slow it down when it gets [INAUDIBLE].
It's a real kind of slimy, slick kind of wet material
that they'll drop and it gets everything red.
So once the flame does get to it, it slows it down enough to
let us work a little bit more in this area.
And finally once you get the line dug around it, you'll get
the hose down there and you start the perimeter.
Like we're here on the line, and the fire was right here.
If they had the water, it slows it down.
We'll just start in 10 feet, and we'll scrape everything
hot back in.
We'll spread the pieces out,
extinguish the flames ourselves.
That's like basically our job is to get what we can with the
tools and make the fire go out.
Things will grow back, and if you guys were here a few
months earlier this would've been green.

Over time there'll be some new trees.
Don't know if you're allergic or not, okay, there's an Epi
Kit on the dash my truck with the hazmat.
So if you get stung let me know and I'll let you jack
yourself up.

THOMAS: So we basically just walked to the job site and
we're all already beat.
It's a lot more vertical than I'm used to
things being this early.
Our camera guy puked.
I'm actually kind of jealous of him, because I've still got
the full night's pizza sitting on my stomach.

The tree dust is playing hell with my sinuses.
JESSE KIENE: See I just imagine the fire moving
uphill, gets into this brush and then you have your lower,
your smaller mid-canopy, and then it just carries in the
large trees.
So what the cutters are doing is they're coming up below us
here, working up the hill, and they're taking pretty much the
smaller trees.
Keeping it to a spacing so they're not just
clearing the forest.
We're trying to manually recreate what a fire would do.
THOMAS: This is the first time I've seen Shane kind of sit.
And it's been like an hour and a half of just straight
walking uphill, with saw, destroying
trees right and left.
SHANE STANCLIFF: This is easy.
I mean, we get higher up, and it's like, a lot of rocks and
like the whole ground, you'll just take one step up and
three steps down.
So it's tough.
THOMAS: I am carrying my body weight in forestry supplies,
going down to 50 degree incline to chop down some
shrubs so forest fire doesn't destroy this.

CRAIG FRANSISCO: That happens a lot, even with us, dude.

THOMAS: Slowly getting less enamored of this job.
Thanks for carrying it out here.
THOMAS: I really feel kind of worthless compared to these
guys, but I know if I had like a chainsaw in hand I'd just be
like getting caught in tress right and left.
Having the blade just suck down into everything I touch.
I'm going to leave this for the real guy.

JAKE ADAMS: I've been doing this for roughly three years.
I started back in '07, just moved up here.
I had been teaching for a little while outside of Reno.
One day I realized that I wasn't there for the kids, I
was there for a paycheck.
And I always told myself but if I found myself teaching in
that kind of situation, that I have no business being there.
I'd always wanted to get involved with firefighting, so
came on out, thought I'd give it a shot.
I do enjoy fighting fire.
I love doing that part of the job.
However, if we can mitigate them before it comes down to
getting to a big point, then I think we're
better off that way.
But you're with the same guys, the same 20 people, for 14
days, possibly even 21 days at a time.
And if you have thin skin, and you can't take a joke, then
you're going to have trouble.
But yeah, so everyone really tries, and I think especially
nowadays we've been able to really nice and lighthearted
while staying safe out in the woods and it's been great.
And I'm loving it right now.
It's cheaper than a gym membership.

THOMAS: Feels brisk.

At least I chose today to wear probably the
gayest underwear I own.

MALE SPEAKER: Is your belt strapped?
MALE SPEAKER: Now you want it ride low.
Oh OK.
I'm currently dressed like a Frosted Mini Wheats version of
a forest firefighter, and we're going
to go dig some line.
There's not a fire right now, but it is good practice.
Line is basically a ditch you surround a fire with and then
it can't get over there.
TIM HENAGIN: You're not trying to do the whole line by
yourself, you're going to come along and do this, just a
It's pretty much like this, move a little bit, like that,
move a little bit like that.
MALE SPEAKER: Cutters are the first one in cutting line.
And then the swampers come, they clear everything out.
And then the diggers come behind them
and dig a fire line.

MALE SPEAKER: You're about two minutes into it.
And you keep doing this for how long?
MALE SPEAKER: 16 hours sometimes.
THOMAS: Oh my God.

This is extraordinarily hard work.
It's impossible to keep my eye on where I'm hitting
and where I'm going.

And that's with no fire in front of me.
MALE SPEAKER: In the yoke.

MALE SPEAKER: What do you think?
THOMAS: That's a bit laborious.
That's about what like a 50th of your average shift?
MALE SPEAKER: Oh yeah, at least, that was
probably six minutes.
THOMAS: How much distance did we cover?
MALE SPEAKER: A hundred feet maybe.
Seven hours we'll do 10,000 plus feet.
THOMAS: 100 times that.
MALE SPEAKER: We started getting it pretty good right
before we quit, we were spaced out perfect.

MALE SPEAKER: Having fun?
MALE SPEAKER: Not bad for a rookie, Tom.
THOMAS: Thank you.
Appreciate that.
MALE SPEAKER: We'd take you on the crew.
THOMAS: That'd be short lived I think.
MALE SPEAKER: Oh you'd be surprised.
I've been working in the woods all my life.
I started out logging, it's like coming
full circle for me.
I've cut the trees down, the big timber, and set the
chokers, hauled them out of the woods, and done a little
bit of planting.
Now I'm back thinning it out and help prevent wild fire.
You want to use back here from here back on your saw.
THOMAS: Never the top.
MALE SPEAKER: Yeah the closer you get to here when you're
limbing, the more chance you have a kick back.
And remember you always want to wrap this thumb around the
handle bar.
Don't cut with it up there like
that, you have no control.
With kickback, this will come right out of your hand.
When you grab that chainsaw, you mold on it, it becomes
part of your body.
One of the things that turn my stomach most
is a chainsaw cut.
It cuts quick and to the bone, and when it stops those teeth
pull everything out.

And just imagine doing that all day.
The key to happiness out here is a sharp chain.

MALE SPEAKER: All right, now the fun part.
THOMAS: I am sore, and sweaty, and ant bitten.
I've got sawdust in my mouth.
I've got chips under my eyelids.
I've got weird vibrationally numbed
fingers from the chainsaw.
I feel very good about myself, though, because I've done an
honest day's work.
Helping the forest and keeping people from having their
houses burn down is a pretty good way to spend your time.
Also get you in decent shape.

Firefighters around the world are universally acclaimed, and
considered heroes.
Forest fire fighters, though, are in the league to
They basically go into one of the deadliest situations in
nature, something that we have all been instinctively hard
wired to avoid on site or smell, no matter what.
And get right up against the flames, and then do one of the
hardest jobs imaginable, which is digging a ditch.
It's some of the hardest work I think exists.