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How Caldor Fire Crews Are Combating Fatigue

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

With lighter winds and cooler temperatures, firefighting conditions are improving in the Lake Tahoe basin. But the work of containing the Caldor fire is still backbreaking. From member station KQED, Raquel Maria Dillon was on the front lines talking to firefighters in the South Lake Tahoe this week and brought us this report.

RAQUEL MARIA DILLON, BYLINE: Mopping up after a fire sounds like the easy part. The flames have passed, the pressure's off - at least right here, a few miles down a winding road outside of town. But this local crew from the Tahoe Douglas Fire Department is bent over, pushing firefighting axes through the dirt. Micah Conant's hands are caked in mud from feeling the dirt and searching for hot spots under the deaf.

MICAH CONANT: Since we got here, our first time actually sleeping was yesterday. We did take a couple of, like, 30-minute naps in our vehicles if we had the time to do so.

DILLON: They've been on the fire lines for a week now. But the sleep deprivation doesn't get to him much because he's 20. Hand crews are a young person's game. Jonathan Sanchez is the veteran here. At age 36, he has advice for his younger crew members.

JONATHAN SANCHEZ: Keep yourself hydrated, well-rested. And have healthy meals, or just try to eat constantly.

DILLON: This crew was on another fire for weeks before this one. Others worked the Dixie fire before coming to the Caldor. It's been a grueling season fighting fires in historically dry conditions.

RYAN HOMER: It's terrible to see structures lost, always. And, you know, those winds almost never cooperate the way we want them to. But, you know, we just - we keep pushing and just do our job and try to focus.

DILLON: Ryan Homer says the Caldor fire leapt over containment lines that took his crew all day to cut. He says it's demoralizing to watch the winds and flames do whatever they want.

HOMER: It's definitely - it's a big mental game. You kind of just got to stay positive in your head and just push through and know that there's going to be an end eventually.

DILLON: A few miles away up twisty mountain roads, Art Avila leads a crew of 20 for Calderon Forest Services. They work 21 days in a row, then drive nine hours back to Boise, Idaho. His youngest firefighter is 18, so sometimes it feels like coaching a sports team. He has to keep their spirits up, even when the fire is winning.

ART AVILA: Going over the line every day, every night - its burnings of structures. We thought we had contained, but, you know, it jumped the line. But right now, it's - we're in a bad spot.

DILLON: Battalion chiefs and captains get nervous when the firefighting is so relentless, and crews hop from one fire to the next without enough rest. That's when mistakes and injuries happen. Avila gives regular pep talks and watches his firefighters closely, looking for signs of exhaustion.

AVILA: It's very hard labor. If there is any fatigue, you know, we'll set him aside and get him some rest or whatever he needs. We don't run our guys down.

DILLON: The long-time firefighters say this year feels different. The fires seem unstoppable with the usual methods because the vegetation is so dry and ready to burn. That means they count each structure they can save as a small victory. Dean Cordrey, a bulldozer operator with a salt-and-pepper mustache, would like to think he played a role in saving some of them.

DEAN CORDREY: Sometimes I sleep out on the line. Sometimes I go get a hotel room. Sometimes I stay out, find a safe place to sleep and set up your sleeping bag and your - go to sleep. I can conk right out.

DILLON: For him, the hardest part is being away from his wife and his ranch near the coast for 10 days at a time. But he's proud to help save people's homes. He hopes someone would do the same for his.

For NPR News, I'm Raquel Maria Dillon in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL WHITE'S "RETURNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.