(TNS) - Their 72-hour shift at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protectoin (Cal Fire) Station 15 began Wednesday morning at 7 a.m.
The first order of business was breakfast for Capt. Ryan Villarino and Firefighters Evan Dalton, Trent Grinstead and Anthony Lopez.
But just as the breakfast sausage, hash browns and eggs were about to be pulled off the burners, three tones rang out at the station located about a mile east of Interstate 15 off West Lilac Road in Valley Center. The crew of Engine #3381 was alerted to a traffic accident along the freeway no more than three miles away.
The stove was turned off and the food set aside. Miller station, as it is known, was quickly locked down and within three minutes of the 8:10 a.m. call, the Type 3 engine was heading out with emergency lights on and the siren blaring.
The crew was the first at the scene, but moments later, another engine and an ambulance from the Deer Springs Fire Protection District joined them along the shoulder of the road next to the fast lane where the cars sat. The accident wasn’t life threatening. A woman in an Accord had run into the back of a Prius containing a woman and a 4-year-old girl.
The women were fine, but the child, properly restrained in a child safety seat in the back of the Prius, was complaining of minor neck and back pain. She was loaded into the ambulance, still sitting in the safety seat with head and neck secured, and taken to Palomar Medical Center in Escondido as a precaution.
The Miller station crew was soon headed back to its breakfast and morning briefing.
A fire crew is like a team, a family. And as with any family, meals are a big deal.
The four couldn’t come up with an example of a great meal cooked at the station, though they said they do go all out when they have to work on Thanksgiving or Christmas. But bad meals tend to be memorable. Sometimes, Capt. Villarino said, when you get a young firefighter on the crew, they have very limited experience cooking, and sometimes none.
“Recently, someone served us boiled noodles, boiled chicken and then instead of putting all the ingredients together he just brought out a jar of Alfredo sauce and set it on the table and that was chicken alfredo,” Villarino, 33, said. “I mean, it says how to do it on the back of the jar!”
Capt. Issac Sanchez, a public information officer for Cal Fire who was at the station that day, said he remembered one culinary disaster involving a new firefighter and an attempt to create a salmon casserole. “He said, ‘I’m sorry, guys, this didn’t work out the way I thought it would.”
The smell and appearance brought no arguments from the rest of the crew when the firefighter volunteered to get some pizza, Sanchez said.
“To me, the best part of this job, whether you’re on a call or here at the station cooking or training — we live here for three straight days and sometimes for 10 or 15 days — is that we’re a family. If one guy is sort of lacking cooking skills, we step up and be that family and help cook,” Grinstead said.
That teamwork applies to all facets of the job.
“You take each other’s strengths and weaknesses and build on it and come together as a team to provide the best service to the citizens and the highest level of customer service,” Grinstead said.
The last couple weeks of October have tended to be peak fire season in San Diego County. Although fire season seems to now extend year round, many say because of climate change, it was this time of year when the 2003 and 2007 firestorms devastated the area.
The members of Wednesday’s Miller station crew, ages 33, 33, 30 and 23, are too young to have fought both those infernos, but are well aware of the history. But rather than the date, it’s the weather conditions that draw their attention and heighten their awareness, they said.
Wednesday’s forecast suggested wildfire was unlikely but heading into the weekend temperatures were expected to rise and humidity levels to drop.
“When we hear Santa Anas are coming, it kind of makes your ears perk up a little bit,” said Dalton. “You get mentally prepared for it. Winds make us get on our toes a little bit.”
Following their delayed breakfast the crew, led by the captain, held their morning briefing which began with a detailed account of the expected weather and was followed by a daily quiz based on questions issued by a national wildfire coordinating group. The crew discussed things about situational awareness, like how to judge where a fire was headed and unexpected dangers to be aware of (snakes came up twice).
To a man, the firefighters said they loved the job. True, the hours can be fierce at times. If other fires are burning elsewhere in the state and resources are stretched thin, a crew could be stationed somewhere locally not for just 72 hours, but potentially for weeks.
The normal three days on and four days off is nice for commutes, Villarino pointed out, since many firefighters live in the Inland Empire and they only have to make that to-and-from trip once a week.
Following the briefing was clean-up time. Lopez washed all the windows, Grinstead mopped the floors. Grinstead performed some landscaping duties in front of the station where a large succulent and fruit tree collection grows.
Meanwhile, the captain was carefully checking the 2009 engine that has been based at Miller station it’s whole life. The station was named and dedicated to E.S. Miller, who from 1933 to 1950 led the state’s local fire unit. The engine holds 500 gallons of water, thousands of feet of hose, and many other tools to handle whatever may come.
There’s never any way to know how busy a crew will be on a given day. Villarino said usually Miller station only gets, on average, two calls a day and Wednesday the morning traffic accident was the only time the engine left the station. Other times, however, can be crazy.
Sanchez says one time he spent 28 straight days at another Valley Center station when many firefighters were upstate fighting blazes.
Firefighters must be fit. It takes a lot of strength and stamina to haul hoses and at times stay up for days fighting a wildland fire. Villarino said he makes sure, time permitting, that his crew gets at least one hour of fitness training each day.
On the walls of the station’s engine bay are movie posters with a common theme advertising such shows as “The Towering Inferno,” “Backdraft,” “Volcano: The Coast is Toast” and a long-forgotten movie starring football legend Howie Long called “Fire Storm.”
Also in the bay is an impressive array of workout equipment: treadmills, stationary bikes, a rowing machine, free weights.
Later in the day, the crew trained with new fire breathing apparatus that had just been delivered.
Training of all sorts, Villarino said, is key. No matter how well a crew knows one another or has worked together, “we have to keep practicing to get better, to master our craft. This is our trade. Every single thing on that engine has a purpose. Practice, practice, practice,” the captain said.
“I love this job,” Dalton said. “Being there for the public, there’s nothing better than helping somebody. It’s pretty much like your second family coming to work. You have a good bond with everybody. It makes it enjoyable. The physical fitness aspect of it, we’re constantly training, going on hikes together. It’s kind of like an ultimate team bond.”
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