Local firefighters, including Todd Dudek and Sergio Castillo, braved life-threatening conditions to battle wildfires in California this summer as members of the Maryland Forest Service
There was fire behind that wind-whipped wall of black smoke. Perhaps it was an hour from reaching them, but who could know for sure? It may have been just a few minutes away. In either case, flames had engulfed much of the steep terrain that separated their escape from a potentially tragic fate.
For his four decades as a photojournalist, Hebron resident and Salisbury volunteer firefighter Todd Dudek has been fascinated with fire… how it grows, how it moves, how it breathes. For the past 15 of those years, he’s been a dedicated public servant tasked with extinguishing it.
A passion for facing the unique challenges these dangerously unpredictable blazes pose led Dudek to the Maryland Forest Service, though it was in the summer of 2016 that he first traveled to California to battle wildfires. He was summoned back to the West Coast this summer, where for three weeks straight he worked alongside Sergio Castillo of Snow Hill, Dorchester County resident Tod Adams and nearly 70 fellow wildland firefighters from the state. One particular day in early August, the group was confronted with this reality on that once-picturesque section of the northern mountainside as flames from the Carr Fire bore down on them.
Believed to have been started accidentally on July 23, when a vehicle towing a dual-axle travel trailer blew a tire, the Carr Fire is the sixth-most destructive in California history. The trailer tire shredded, causing the steel rim to scrape along the pavement, generating sparks that ignited dry vegetation along the edge of the highway. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and media outlets reported the Carr Fire claimed eight lives, including three firefighters, destroyed or damaged 1,881 structures, charred 358 square miles of land and forced tens of thousands to flee over five weeks in July and August.
“That was probably one of the most intense moments of my life,” Dudek, 56, said while recalling their engine crew and four others racing through the heart of the flames in hopes of living to battle the wildfire another day.
The flames blocked one of two escape routes, which forced two teams to move up the mountainside to burn their safety zone — literally fighting fire with fire — in order to join a few dozen anxious yet thankful firefighters at the bottom of the ravine more than an hour later. “That was the worst part of it all, not knowing if the rest of our crew was safe. We all got quiet until we heard they were on the way back down,” Adams said.
The danger around every hill and valley offers challenges this rare breed of firefighter covet.
The United States Forest Service employs approximately 10,000 wildland firefighters, or roughly one percent of the more than one million paid and volunteer firefighters reportedly serving across the nation. The Maryland Forest Service has about 100 wildland firefighters on call each year, many of whom were part of nine engine squads, two 20-person hand crews, heavy equipment and single-resource teams who assisted in battling wildfires in several western states this past summer.
They share at least the required entry-level training: a 40-hour course on all aspects of firefighting that features hands-on experience with tools of the trade and an introduction to wildland firefighting, wildland fire behavior and the incident command system. Wildland firefighters also take part in the Work Capacity Test, or Pack Test, which requires successful completion of a three-mile trek in 45 minutes while toting a 45-pound pack annually. Most of all, they share in taking the thrill of the battle and the work they do seriously.
“It does get into your blood,” said Chris Robertson, fire manager of the Maryland Forest Service’s Department of Natural Resources in Church Creek. “You talk to these guys, and they do it because they enjoy it. It’s overwhelming for a lot of people. I’ve sent people out who go out one time and say, ‘No this is not for me. I’m not going to do this again.’”
The tactics wildland firefighters utilize in these constantly changing environments are different than what’s followed while battling structure fires, Castillo said, “where you either go in and attack, or, if it’s too unsafe, you stay outside and surround and drown. Wildfire fighting is a whole different game. You’ve got so many things you’ve got to plan for and deal with.”
Castillo and Adams, who have a combined 36 years of wildland firefighting experience, served as engine boss and engine operator, respectively, for a four-person unit that included Dudek, a firefighter and engine-operator trainee during this mission. They learned of the task force’s assignment that day at the morning briefing: lay 1,000 feet of hose, by hand, to pump water up the mountainside, while pilots flying overhead conducted water drops onto the fire raging below them.
The crews stayed ahead of the flames by creating safety zones, marking escape routes, posting lookouts to track the fire and monitoring weather and shifts in wind direction. “Pretty normal,” said Castillo, 51, an emergency medical technician in Pocomoke City who works part-time with the Maryland Forest Service. Then came unexpected news: Fire had broken out above their location.
Adams, 42, a firefighter for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, recalled facing a similar situation in 2011, at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, when heavy winds shifted the flames in his direction and forced him to run half a mile to escape. Adams remained calm then. The crews remained calm on that California mountainside.
“It got a little intense,” Adams said. “We had fire on both sides, and there were times when the fire was going right over the cab of the truck. But we went ahead and kept on driving through it. We had everything pretty well planned.”
Wildland firefighters constantly prepare for every possible scenario. Their lives, and the lives of those they protect, depend on it. Like the boy on the street corner, dressed in firefighter gear, who cheered every morning for the heroes who provided his ultimate eighth birthday present — a chance to operate a water hose. And the restaurant manager who paid for 28 firefighters to enjoy a meal during a rare and welcome break. And the six families whose homes the task force saved from nearby flames one day.
There were signs of support everywhere — hundreds of them, Dudek estimated — which reminded each the real reason they accepted this challenge. “We were out there, helping other people in their worst of times,” Dudek said. “Everywhere you went, people were just so thankful we were there. People were just so thankful that we saved most of their town.”
These firefighters are now home on the Shore with their families, some of whom know the danger they face out west each summer. Seth Roberts, Dudek’s 18-year-old son, has followed in Todd’s footsteps as a live-in volunteer and soon to be full-time firefighter with the Salisbury Fire Department.
Like the firefighters, their families also make sacrifices while supporting what they do. “They’re glad I’m out helping people and protecting their land. But we don’t talk about it when I’m out there because they know the danger of it,” Adams said. “The true blessing is when you get home. [You take] a deep breath until you walk through the door and see your wife and kids.”
It’s difficult to leave their families behind. But the passion they have for fighting wildfires, especially ones as intense as the Carr Fire, calls them out to encounter their next battle.
“I’m ready to do this until I can’t do it anymore. I absolutely love it,” Dudek said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever see another fire like the Carr Fire, but it definitely makes me want to keep going.”
Becoming a Wildland Firefighter
• Entry-level training is required, which includes a 40-hour course on all aspects of firefighting and tools of the trade (hand tools, pumps and hoses, deployment of fire shelters, etc.), as well as an introduction to wildland firefighting, wildland fire behavior and the incident command system. Yearly eight-hour refresher courses also are mandatory.
• Newcomers also must pass the Work Capacity Test, or Pack Test, which requires completing a three-mile trek in 45 minutes while toting a 45-pound pack. This physical test is conducted every year in conjunction with the refresher course.
• Advanced training is offered for wildland firefighters in search of higher classifications, which range from entry-level firefighter and firefighter Type 1 to squad boss, crew boss and engine boss. Incident commander tops the list.
Want to learn more? Visit DNR.Maryland.gov.
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