Photography

'We can’t catch a break:’ California’s brutal wildfires are exhausting firefighters

POLLOCK PINES, Calif. — The smoke plume was visible 100 miles away, out the plane window. On final approach into Sacramento, passengers craned their necks to see the behemoth Caldor Fire in El Dorado National Forest.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

California is suffering another brutal fire season, with at least 11 active blazes across the state. But even in this tough year, the Caldor Fire stands out. It grew from a few thousand acres to over 50,000 in a 36-hour period, destroying homes and threatening towns.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

California Conservation Corps firefighters eat and hydrate after a shift cutting fireline in Grizzly Flats.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

A firefighter washes his face at the crew buggy after cutting fireline off the Mormon Emigrant Trail road in Grizzly Flats, Calif.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

At the El Dorado Hotshots base, just west of the Caldor Fire’s perimeter in Sly Park, former crew superintendent Aaron Humphrey called the Caldor Fire “the big one … the worst-case scenario” as he worked with his crews to protect power lines from falling on Wednesday.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

The exploding blazes — which have already burned an area larger than Rhode Island — are stretching fire crews thin. Usually firefighters can increase containment at night or when weather patterns shift, but the current crop of fires do not seem to let up. “We can’t catch a break,” Humphrey said.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Aaron Humphrey, former El Dorado Hotshots superintendent and current Safety Infrastructure Protection Lead with PG&E, outside of the hotshot base.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

A California Conservation Corps fire crew packing up their engine after cutting hand line.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

U.S. Forest Service firefighters from the Six Rivers National Forest work on building a hose lay in front of homes threatened by the Caldor Fire.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

For example, the El Dorado hotshot crew was called back from a 14-day deployment in northern California to tackle the Caldor Fire, burning right in their backyard.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

“They’re beaten up, limping,” Humphrey said, noting that human bodies need rest after 14 consecutive 16-hour shifts. Hotshots carry loads up to 75 pounds in Nomex and fire boots, while hiking in steep terrain at altitude in smoke. The work can literally be back breaking.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

The crew was ordered to take two days of rest before coming back to work.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

After a shift, a California Conservation Corps firefighter walks into the crew engine, or "buggy."

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

U.S. Forest Service firefighters from the Six Rivers National Forest build a hose lay in front of homes threatened. The engine pumps water to the hose, allowing firefighters to protect nearby structures. (Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post)

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

California Conservation Corps firefighters eat and hydrate after a shift cutting fireline at the Caldor Fire.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

But it is hard for the firefighters to take a break when these burns are so relentless — and so dangerous. Earlier this week, the town of Grizzly Flats was largely destroyed by the Caldor Fire, as first responders worked to evacuate nearby Pollock Pines and the residential community of Sly Park further north.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Further south, at the blaze near the hamlet of Omo Ranch, rural homes and an elementary school were also threatened. Volunteer firefighters milled about at the local station anxiously scanning the skies for signs of advancing smoke. A DC-10 airliner converted for aerial firefighting flew overhead, dropping 10,000 gallons of flame retardant to protect the area.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

A burned structure and vehicles in Grizzly Flats.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Burned mailboxes in Grizzly Flats, Calif.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

A melted car windshield and burned steering column inside a destroyed vehicle in Grizzly Flats, Calif.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Fires have gotten bigger and deadlier for several reasons. California’s extreme drought has left much of the state critically dry, meaning forests are more likely to ignite when a fire is spreading.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Dense forests, overgrown from decades of fire suppression, add to the fuel load. A record hot summer and climate change have led to more hot days per year, and the trio combine to create this era of megafires.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Burned trees in Grizzly Flats.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Pine needles flash frozen into place after wind and heat baked the leaves.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Completely burned trees near Grizzly Flats.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

At the Indian Diggings elementary school in Omo Ranch, a “strike team” of five brush engines and a supervisor truck rolled in to evaluate the neighborhood. I heard a yelp from across the parking lot; it was an engine crew I had photographed at the Dixie Fire three weeks ago.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

They had been relieved after a two-week shift, gone home, then had just arrived on their first day of another two-week assignment. We caught up briefly in the parking lot before their radios crackled that it was time to go. There were homes that needed scouting and structure defense plans to be arranged.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

A California Conservation Corps fire crew comes off a fireline at the end of their shift east of Jenkinson Lake.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Firefighters with Tuolumne Rancheria clear fuels along Sly Park road to help protect homes threatened by the Caldor Fire. Chainsaws are used to cut the brush, which reduces the intensity of available fuel to burn if fire reaches the area.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

U.S. Forest Service firefighters build a hose line around homes threatened by the Caldor Fire in Sly Park, Calif.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Santa Cruz Fire Department Captain Brian Thomas turned to me and said before hopping into their towering off-road rigs, “this is the new normal.”

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Two California Conservation Corps firefighters talk to each other after their shift fighting the Caldor Fire in Sly Park, Calif. (Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post)

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

Stuart W. Palley is a photographer based in Southern California who has over a decade of experience covering wildfires.

Stuart W. Palley for The Washington Post

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Credits

Editing and Production by Karly Domb Sadof and Amanda Erickson