Soon after I graduated from high school in 1954, I realized it was time to become part of the adult world and get a job.
During the 1950s, salaries were at poverty level. Service jobs paid 50 to 85 cents per hour. The business community in my hometown amounted to a mom and pop grocery, a motel, two restaurants, a gift shop and an elementary school of 25 children. I went to the Descanso Ranger Station 10 miles away to see if I could land a job for the rest of the summer. I filled out the application, and my first wildland firefighter job began for $1.10 per hour. The tour of duty was six days per week and 24 hours per day. However, firefighters were only paid straight time for eight hours and 25 percent differential for time beyond 8 hours.
The uniform was simple, high-top leather boots, Levis and a khaki long-sleeved shirt. Safety equipment included a fiberglass broad-brim hardhat with chinstrap, a pair of leather gloves and a pair of plastic goggles. When I arrived at my guard station in Alpine, Calif., some 15 miles from home, I introduced myself to the engine foreman, tank truck operator and two other firefighters. As soon as I was shown around the station, received a lesson on how to make up a bunk and was given my housekeeping assignment, we took a tour of the engine I would be working on.
The engine, which was painted dark forest green, was a 1952 flatbed truck chassis with a portable 200-gallon water tank and pump. The side toolboxes contained 1,000 feet of 10 inch and 1-inch cotton jacket hose. All our hose fittings were on one side of the truck and all our hand tools on the other side. I soon discovered that washing and waxing vehicles was a full-time job for firefighters.
The TTO was about halfway through my engine orientation when the magneto crank phone rang our number. Cuyamaca Lookout was reporting a fire about one mile south of Pine Valley, with smoke coming up black and fast. We loaded up and began the 25-minute trip up 16 miles of grade to the fire.
When we arrived, we saw a hay truck had caught on fire. The flames were traveling uphill through heavy brush and oak trees. The foreman told us to lay a 10-inch hose around the fire. This may have been pretty easy to understand for some, but this was my first day at work and I didn't even have a chance to see how a hose was laid. The foreman grabbed three rolls of hose, put them in my arms and said, "Go."
I remember that the choking smoke, the flames all around, and people yelling orders from the line to get more hose or tools was overwhelming. I was rolling out another length of hose near the fireline when all of a sudden a noise like high-powered steam release and water in hot grease was all around me. I looked up and the live oak trees were burning and so was the tall grass nearby. I threw the hose I was carrying out of my hands and "beat feet" to the engine.
When I arrived at the engine my foreman said my eyes were big enough to use for dinner plates. I told him the fire was too big and hot. He looked at the activity, handed me more hose and sent me back to the flames. Reluctantly, but obediently, I took the end of the hose and with shaking hands and one eye on the fire I realized I had just become a wildland firefighter.
After a full day of fire suppression, we took dinner on the fireline.
That night we drank warm water and ate World War II C-rations by the light of our headlamps. I didn't have much to say, I just listened to my teammates and closed my eyes for a short rest. Afterwards, we worked until daylight by headlamp, cutting brush, scraping the ground until there was only bare soil visible next to black burn. My hands and back ached from swinging the brush hook and shovel. I dragged what seemed like miles of hose up and down slopes, over and around rockslides and by boulders big enough to crush and bury an engine.
I realized later that day, after we returned to our barracks in Alpine, that I had just received the best training available for that time in the history of wildland firefighting. It was truly a trial by fire. As firefighters we learned to think and act as a team. Today the teamwork lesson remains the same: watch, read, listen and practice what you learn. Do that, and all will come home safely to fight fire another day.
(Editor's note: George Taylor is a retired Forest Service employee and has spent 50 years working in the wildland fire community. He has contributed a series of columns to the News about his time employed by the Forest Service in celebration of the agency's centennial.)
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