A Day in the Life of a Firefighter: Table Mountain Fire

Firefighters rise before 6 a.m. for morning briefing at fire camp.
Firefighters rise before 6 a.m. for morning briefing at fire camp. Photo: Fire Information Officer Kent Romney

At fire camp, life starts around 5 a.m. Crews roll out of their tents into the cool morning glow of floodlights; it’s time for morning briefing at 6 a.m.

In an alfalfa field near Cle Elum, Washington, crews are informed of the overall fire strategy including where firelines are being constructed, what obstacles they may experience, if there will be air operations, and what structures may be threatened. During the briefing, each team is assigned to a specific area in the fire and receives a briefing map.

Fire fighter grabs a meal at the Table Mountain Fire Base camp near Cle Elum, WA. Photo: Diana Lofflin, DNR.
Firefighter grabs a meal at Base camp near Cle Elum, WA. Photo: Diana Lofflin, DNR.

On this chilly morning, a fire crew is heading to the Northwest section of the fire, ‘Division W’, which firefighters call ‘Division Whiskey.’ By using this term, there is no confusion about what division each person is talking about. Communication is key, especially when it comes to fire and safety.

Firefighters are well taken care of at fires. According to Dennis Donovan, Food Unit Leader, firefighters are fed high-quality foods with a minimum of 4,500 calories a day.

For breakfast this crisp morning, firefighters were fed piping hot chicken fried steak with gravy, oatmeal, scrambled eggs with cheese, potatoes, and a continental breakfast bar with fruit and cereal. Gallons of coffee, tea, hot chocolate, water, and juice are available. The kitchen is set up to feed a minimum of 350 people an hour, an important statistic when feeding over a 1,000 at each meal.

They pick up their sack lunches filled with two sandwiches, cheese sticks, fruits and snacks, and they are ready to fight fires. The crew heading up to Division Whiskey is assigned to strengthen the line by implementing a ‘burn out’ — a firefighting technique

Fire fighter uses a drip torch to light a back fire to help contain the Table Mountain Fire. Photo: Diana Lofflin, DNR
Firefighter uses a drip torch to light a back fire to help contain the Table Mountain Fire. Photo: Diana Lofflin, DNR

that literally uses ‘fire to fight fire.’ Crew members have been working the past few days creating a fireline, which is a control line firefighters dig to the mineral soil by hand. Once the fireline is constructed, crews will limb the bottom of the trees so the fire doesn’t climb up to the canopy. They will then use a controlled burn to remove the fuels so there are no grasses and dead limbs for the fire to burn through. Fire needs three ingredients to ignite: fuel, oxygen, and heat. Firefighters work hard to remove the fuels, which is one way firefighters contain wildfires.

A specially trained firefighter will use a drip torch to light the controlled burn. They light the tip of the drip torch and drip liquid fire on the ground. They travel in rows and have an intricate communication system to make sure everyone is safe as they ignite. Each firefighter carries a fully loaded pack with a fire shelter, flares, water, goggles, GPS, maps, food, and emergency gear, all of which weighs at least 45 pounds. When hiking over uneven terrain, crews must be in tip-top physical condition. In fact, each firefighter must go through an arduous pack test, which is a physical exertion test where they must carry 45 pounds for 3 miles in less than 45 minutes…without running. Yikes!

A firefighters is served a hot, high quality meal after a long day of work. Photo: Fire Information Officer Kent Romney

After a long, 12- to 14-hour day of work, crew members head back to fire base camp. There are hot showers, family calls, and supplies to grab before heading to dinner.

At dinner time, another hot, multi-course meal awaits. This evening is a ‘star dinner’ with prime rib, horseradish, and a baked potato with all the fixings, plus a salad bar. For dessert, there are always choices. Tonight it’s ice cream, chocolate mousse pie, or fresh watermelon. With a full belly, crews head off to bed to start all over again tomorrow.