COLOMA — One by one, the Cal Fire hand crew members huddled under their emergency fire shelters responded as their names were called out by their captain.
But only silence met one name.
“Vargas! Everybody shout out for Vargas!”
After more silence, a lone voice piped up laconically, “Vargas is dead.”
If this had been real and not a training exercise, Vargas indeed would have been dead because he had not made it completely under his flame-retardant shelter, said Cal Fire Capt. Bryan Farrell.
But instead, he was pulled from the scene so that the remaining crew, including the swamper and the captain, could run the drill to assess how they all would survive a situation in which they needed to take shelter from a fire.
“This was real realistic,” said Capt. Arturo Rodriguez, as he assessed the drill with the crew. “Vargas, you were sticking out, so you died. But the captain was able to quickly ascertain who was missing.”
Rodriguez questioned one crew member on why he had separated from the group, noting that the crew stands a better chance of survival when the members bunch together.
“After you get down, you can crawl,” Farrell reminded his team.
But Rodriguez praised them as the only crew in the two days of exercise that provided a GPS read of their location.
“I was really impressed with the command and take-charge of your captain,” he said. “It went really well.”
The 12-member team was part of a two-day training exercise for Cal Fire’s hand crews, who must pass a rigorous test that includes equipment inspections, handline construction, physical fitness hikes, fire shelter drills and fire behavior awareness.
“Every year, before we kick into the full fire season, we run these drills,” said Cal Fire Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff.
The hand crews undergoing the drills, hosted this year in El Dorado County, were from three conservation camps, including Washington Ridge off Highway 20 in Nevada County. Washington Ridge runs five crews of 12 to 13 inmates each, Tolmachoff said.
Inmates at Washington Ridge are mostly from High Desert State Prison in Susanville and are screened for their suitability for the program.
Before inmates even get assigned to a hand crew, they undergo two weeks of training on the basics of fire safety.
“They put you through it,” said “Bubba,” the crew’s swamper. “You have to run a mile every day … They teach you all the tools.”
According to Tolmachoff, the swamper generally is a more experienced crew member who acts as the captain’s right-hand man.
This season will be Bubba’s fourth on the hand crew, he said. Last year, he spent a week and a half on the Robbers Fire outside Foresthill, cutting line.
The hand crews do similar work, cutting and clearing brush, all year long.
During fire season, they typically will be gone all summer, deploying wherever needed across the state, Tolmachoff said. Getting the hand crews as ready as possible for the upcoming fire season is going to be especially important this year, due to the lack of precipitation this winter.
“They are talking historical lows with rainfall this year,” Tolmachoff noted, adding that Cal Fire already has seen a 12-acre fire this season.
Pointing to the rapidly drying grass all around the ranch on which the crews are training, she said, “It’s green, but with a spark, it would burn.”
To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4229.