Redondo Beach firefighters battle Creek Fire in Sierras

The RBFD Strike Team gathers for their morning briefing at Sierra National Forest. Photo by Joseph Boehn

The RBFD Strike Team gathers for their morning briefing at Sierra National Forest. Photo by Joseph Boehn

Redondo Beach firefighters are on their eighth day of fighting the Creek Fire in the Sierra National Forest.

The fire has burned over 220,000 acres, steadily approaching the record 281,000 acres burned by the 2017 Thomas Fire in Ventura County, the largest in recent California history.

“Containment is at 16 percent,” Fire Engineer Joseph Boehn of the Redondo Beach Fire Department said. “It’s slow progress.”

The slow progress, he said, is attributed to the dense smoke layer coming from the fires. Typically, forest fires are largely fought with water drops from helicopters. But the billowing smoke is making it nearly impossible for aircrews to execute water drops. 

“The heat here is stagnated and encapsulated in the smoke,” said Boehn. “There’s an inversion layer of smoke that hasn’t lifted, so they haven’t put any air ops up yet because of the dangers of flying through smoke.”

The smoke, he said, has become a permanent cologne. “We’ve been breathing smoke the whole eight days we’ve been here — there’s no getting  away from it. We smell like barbecued ribs now.”

Boehn’s duties are on the ground. He is part of a team of highly trained firefighters on a Type One strike team, which provides structure protection to neighborhoods. Preparing for and mitigating structure fires, said Boehn, is their top priority.

The crew is currently on a 24-hour-on/24-hour-off schedule, as opposed to a typical 12-hour day. When their day of rest finally comes, it’s spent washing laundry, sleeping, and calling their families. 

Though he faces destructive flames and is blinded by plumes of smoke each day, Boehn says the hardest part is being away from home. “You mentally prep for saying goodbye to your family,” he said. “FaceTime makes it a little more palatable. We’re lucky in this generation of firefighters that we get to actually see our families — well, if we have cell service.”

But missing home hasn’t deterred Boehn’s love for his job. It’s been his dream since he was a kid, he said. 

“I always pictured myself sitting in a red fire engine,” he said. “So that keeps me motivated  and keeps me in a positive light.”

He also said the backing of a strong crew is crucial to keeping passion for the job. 

“It’s the camaraderie with a group of guys and girls, to go do something dangerous but know that you have each other’s backs,” he said. “We all love this job. We all signed up for it because it’s one of those things we’ve wanted from an early age.”

Boehn reminds himself daily that his childhood self would be proud to see him fighting the historic forest fires. “I keep telling myself it’s the job I signed up for and it’s the job I always dreamt about.” ER



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