The Thomas Fire is now the single largest wildfire in California history. Following its start on Dec. 4, it burned 281,900 acres, destroyed 1,063 structures and claimed the life of one firefighter. Crews from surrounding communities poured into the area to help fight the blaze.
Among them was Agoura Hills resident Steve Wallace, who serves as the division chief of the San Gabriel Fire Department. Wallace and his teams of firefighters spent most of December supporting wildland firefighters by defending homes and businesses in the path of the blaze and working to help contain the flames.
“There was a Saturday morning we got in there as the fire front was hitting everything,” Wallace said. “You can see this thing coming and you know, ‘okay, there’s no way we can defend these three houses, but if those go it’s going to create a problem for the ones nearby, so this is where we’ve got to make a stand.’ You just draw your line in the sand.”
A structural firefighter by trade, Wallace said he and his crews worked to make houses in the path of the fire as defensible as they could by clearing vegetation, cleaning roofs, moving combustible materials inside and doing triage—deciding which homes are the hardest to defend and which ones, if burned, would put more property at risk.
A fire hose is mostly a secondary tool in fighting a wildfire. The wildland firefighters do go in with hoses to battle the flames, but, Wallace said, containment is their first priority. Quickly extinguishing the fire isn’t always possible.
He and his crews work with hand tools, axes and shovels to dig a trench into the bare earth, removing flammable materials to stop the flames from progressing.
“When you hear about ‘containment,’ that means there’s a physical line scraped in the dirt, cut all the way around the fire,” Wallace said. “If they say a fire’s 100 percent contained it means they’ve dug a line in the dirt all the way around it. And before they’ll say a fire’s done there will be a lining all the way around that thing.”
Even the planes flying overhead are working to contain the fire, not necessarily extinguish it, he said. The red liquid they dump on a burning hillside is called Phos-Chek, a retardant foam that slows the pace of the fire. Wallace said it smells like oranges.
When wind is a factor, as was the case with the Thomas Fire, structural defense takes top priority.
“On this fire there were guys taking care of pumping stations, research stations, defending roadways, anything that’s out there infrastructure or property-wise,” Wallace said. “Avocado groves, that’s a huge one. The agriculture industry is huge. For a fire to come through and burn down a citrus grove or an avocado grove, take somebody’s livelihood away, has huge economic impacts. We’re here to protect stuff the best we can. When we get working with the weather, that’s when containment happens.”
At the Thomas Fire, Wallace and his crews worked in 24-hour shifts. Because he lived in nearby Agoura Hills, he could drive home on his days away from the fire line, but that wasn’t an option for everyone.
Cal Fire, which was coordinating the fight against the Thomas Fire, brought in sleeper trailers, semitrailers with bunks stacked four high and 20 deep, air-conditioned and dark.
Wallace said he’s worked other fires where the crews had to sleep in tents pitched in a parking lot.
He said the firefighters have received an overwhelming reception for their efforts, but that’s not why they do it.
“Most of the guys I work with are really humble,” Wallace said. “We love what we do, and we’re not doing it for the accolades and the appreciation. I mean, when you’ve been out working for 30 hours, it’s great to get a pat on the back, don’t get me wrong, but it’s so bizarre to me that people come out after they’ve lost everything and they’re just grateful that you were even there.
“I don’t know what the mystique with my profession is. I’m glad I’m there, I’m glad we can hopefully have done some good for somebody, but to me we’re just there doing our job.”