Firefighters face not only flames but fatigue in already hectic fire season

Published: Sunday, July 1 2012 6:05 p.m. MDT

Firefighters rest between shifts on the Wood Hollow Fire in Sanpete County Friday, June 29, 2012.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

MORONI — Most of Calvert Phillips' fellow firefighters who spent the night building a fire line and checking hot spots in the mountains north of town were still sleeping late Friday afternoon.

"I'm tired, but I can't sleep," said the 48-year-old New Mexico man as he ate a sack lunch on a shaded picnic table outside the fire command center at North Sanpete Middle School.

Phillips is among 100 members of the night crew on the Wood Hollow Fire that had burned more than 47,000 acres of timber, juniper and sagebrush in Sanpete and Utah counties. The blaze has claimed one life.

Displaced residents from three subdivisions were allowed to return to their homes Saturday morning, and officials expected to contain the blaze by midnight Sunday. 

A spray-painted sign along U.S. 89 thanks firefighters for their efforts.

Firefighters typically work 16-hour days building fire lines, tracking flare-ups and digging up tree stumps that might be burning beneath the ground.

"It's a lot of work," said Phillips, a Bureau of Indian Affairs firefighter since 1984. "It's lots of miles that you have to walk just do that job."

But flames aren't the only things those on the front lines fight. Fatigue also is the enemy. Long days and the possibility of a long season could take a heavy toll on those trained to combat rampaging wildfires.

"That is a firefighter's instinct, to just go all out," said Dorothy Harvey, Wood Hollow Fire spokeswoman. "That's OK if it's a short fire and they're going to have time to rest in between, but we do stress that they take care of themselves and others."

This is Phillips' first fire of the season. And as dry as the West is, he's likely to be called out many more times.

"It's unreal — for June," Harvey said, noting fires in Colorado, Nevada and Idaho. "We'll probably go from fire to fire this year."

To avoid firefighter fatigue, bosses encourage eating, drinking and resting at the appropriate times. They also advise firefighters to have a buddy so they can look out for each other, Harvey said.

"We just have to drink a lot of water," Phillips said.

He also exercises when he's home. "You have to be in shape to climb those mountains," Phillips said.

And working at night, Phillips said, means firefighters have to be extra careful, even with headlamps to light their way.

"You can't see what you're stepping on. You might sit on a cactus when you're taking a break," he said.

Only four of the 918 firefighters on the Wood Hollow blaze have suffered injuries so far — two strained necks, a strained back and one case of heat exhaustion, Harvey said.

Their efforts have paid off as authorities were able to contain the fire.

"We're really gaining on it," Harvey said.

Evacuated residents of the Oaker Hills, Indian Ridge and Elk Ridge subdivisions will be allowed back into their homes early Saturday morning.

"We are starting to wind down a little bit," Harvey said. "We won't leave until there's no possibility of it blowing up or starting over again."

Since it started June 24, the fire has threatened 300 residences and destroyed 52 primary dwellings, according to fire officials.

Authorities found on person dead in an evacuated area Wednesday. The Sanpete County Sheriff's Office would not release the identity of the person.

Deputy Eric Zeeman said Friday the office is waiting for the state medical examiner to "tie up some loose ends" before releasing the individual's name. Investigators, he said, believe the person was caught in the fire.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved a grant to help with firefighting costs, now estimated at $3.8 million.

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com

Twitter: dennisromboy

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