Dan Tuohy, a wiry, bearded 23-year-old, never saw battle during three years as an Army Green Beret but, when 40-foot flames completely surrounded his crew near this California foothill town, he said he finally learned what war is like.
For more than a week, more than 3,100 firefighters like Tuohy have been trying to control the nation's largest ongoing blaze. Their ranks and equipment are stretched thin by slim budgets and because other major fires are raging in bone-dry western states.
They have been overcome by smoke, drained by 24-hour shifts and seared by 100-degree temperatures, but most seem to be having the time of their lives.
"I was too busy to think about the danger, or how tired I was," Tuohy said of his first night here a week ago, when the fire threatening Ojai had surrounded the out-of-the-way house he was protecting.
Like many others here, Tuohy was hired by the U.S. Forest Service for seasonal duty. He is fighting his fifth fire of the summer. Like most of the others, he is young, says he likes the challenge and the money, and found unexpected rewards when he returned to camp.
"They posted a letter from one lady that said we saved her house and her apple tree, so here's an apple pie she baked. One kid wrote, 'Thank you for saving my GI Joe collection,' " Tuohy said.
Although the towns of Ojai and Carpinteria and other nearby population centers have been saved in these hills east of Santa Barbara, the fire has not been contained, authorities said. It still burns deep into the Santa Ynez Mountains, and 85,600 acres of brush and trees have been consumed.
A fire near San Luis Obispo 100 miles to the north that threatened several homes has burned 64,000 acres and is reported almost contained. A new fire in the Santa Cruz mountains near Los Gatos threatens more than 1,000 homes.
At least nine fires are out of control in California, and hundreds of blazes have scarred parts of 11 other states and three Canadian provinces, the Associated Press reported. More than 1,700 square miles of acreage, an area almost the size of Delaware, have been affected.
Forest Service officials in Washington said low budget requests resulting from lack of a serious fire threat for three summers have left them scrambling to move firefighters from other parts of the country to the West.
Rosters are posted at Ojai's little Soule Park, which has been turned into a camp of tents, trailers and scattered, multicolored packs and sleeping bags. The rosters show that crews are here from national forests in Arkansas, Michigan, Wisconsin, Utah, New Mexico, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.
"All the firefighters are used up throughout the entire United States," said Forest Service fire information officer Jean Hawthorne, who is usually based near San Diego but now is here.
When the fire began in the thick brush of Wheeler Canyon July 2, apparently the work of an arsonist, crews went roaring into danger zones for long nights, and little thought was given to schedules.
Now, with fire spreading so widely that a round-trip to camp may take six hours, supervisors have put crews on 24-hour shifts. Firefighters spend a full day at the fire, catching what sleep they can, then return to camp for 24 hours of rest and maybe a beer or two in Ojai.
Alan Cousland, 20, a stocky firefighter and sometime grocery clerk from Mariposa, Calif., sat sipping a soft drink six hours into his day of rest, still too excited to sleep.
He said he awoke at 2 a.m. Monday and, three hours later, was in a gully burning out an area in the path of the main blaze to create an obstacle it could not jump. He worked through the day, wolfing ham sandwiches, draining his three-quart canteen and catching no more than 30 minutes of sleep on the roadside.
He did not return to camp until 8 a.m. today but said he still planned a ride into town before bedding down. "I like it," he said with a grin. "I like the money." At $5.03 an hour plus overtime, he expects to make about $1,000 for 10 days of duty.
Tuohy, who said he slept a few hours this morning before waking to help restock his crew's fire truck, plans to study aeronautics .
His parents are away and do not know about his night in a 50-foot-wide ring of fire. The heat knocked out the water system at the house his crew was surrounding, and the only water available was that in the truck. "It was pretty hairy," he said, but the house was saved.
Tuohy said he joined the Forest Service because he liked "the military aspects." Noting the letters of thanks on the bulletin board, he added, "It's a lot more satisfying than the military, and the results are a lot better."