Cover Story
Heat of the moment
Three drivers, three different perspectives on wildfire season

By Tyson Fisher, staff writer

Chris Maslak, a trucker from Lake Isabella, Calif., had not even settled into his new home before a wildfire threatened his house and his family.

Tommy Roach of Robert Lee, Texas, volunteered his trucking skills to fight a wildfire that was quickly approaching his community.

Jason Alexander, a CDL holder from Sacramento, Calif., provides support for wildfires, including operating “water tenders” when agencies need help containing a large fire.

Wildfires affect the livelihood of communities in vast swathes of North America. Whether at home, volunteering or doing contract work, trucks play key roles during wildfire season, which peaks in late-July through late-August/early-September.

‘Looks like a war zone’

OOIDA Life Member Chris Maslak moved into his new home in Lake Isabella, Calif., on June 11. Maslak grew up in the Southern California region, so wildfires are nothing new to him. However, less than two weeks after moving in, Maslak and his wife had to evacuate their new home.

“I lived in the desert an hour away,” Maslak said. “We came up to the mountains to be slightly cooler, and this is the welcoming they gave us.”

The Erskine Fire struck the Lake Isabella area at approximately

4 p.m. on June 23, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Spreading to more than 48,000 acres – or 75 square miles – the wildfire destroyed nearly 300 homes and shut down Highway 178 at a cost of $22.6 million as of press time.

Starting at a location several miles away, the wildfire reached Maslak’s area within 20 minutes and got as close as eight houses away. In fact, one of the homes that caught fire was on Maslak’s “target list” when looking to buy a new house in the area.

For four and a half days, if Maslak decided to leave his home, he could not come back because of evacuation orders. On June 29, Maslak was still without power. When all was said and done, the land nearby was scorched.

“Looks like a war zone,” Maslak said describing the aftermath.

Maslak has experienced several natural disasters in his life, including fires, floods and earthquakes. For him, the Erskine Fire ranks high up there with the 1989 earthquake in Northern California and the 1971 San Fernando earthquake.

“Like tornadoes, wildfires will hit in an instant too,” Maslak said. “They’re here, they’re gone. It’s like ‘what the hell just happened?’”

‘It needed to be done’

As Maslak noted, wildfires come without warning. Sometimes, it’s up to nearby volunteers to contain the fire before government agencies step in with their resources. OOIDA Senior Member Tommy Roach decided to put his trucking skills to use when a wildfire approached his community.

On April 11, 2011, a lightning strike sparked the Wildcat Fire in Coke County, Texas. For a few days, the fire was contained within a 30-acre area. Roach sprang to action to ensure the fire did not spread. Past exposure to wildfires led Roach to be more proactive this time around.

Back in 2009, a wildfire struck near Roach’s hometown of Robert Lee, Texas. A friend of his owned an oil field service company that supplies trucks, bulldozers and other heavy equipment. His friend and the employees of the company volunteered their services to fight the blaze. Roach told them he was a call away if help was needed, but the phone didn’t ring. This time, Roach was not going to wait for any green light to volunteer.

“If you feel the need to do something, you need to do it,” Roach said. “You don’t need to wait for somebody to ask you to do it.”

So in 2011, without hesitating, Roach jumped in the truck with his friend to deliver heavy equipment needed to contain the Wildcat Fire. With the fire in its early stages, Roach offered his services until the wee hours of the morning. Federal agencies had not stepped in at the time, so efforts were up to those willing to put in the work on their own time.

Many of the volunteers had little formal experience fighting fires. With the exception of volunteer firefighters, many of the volunteers were locals trying to save their community.

“It needed to be done,” Roach said. “One way or another, somebody was going to have to do it.”

Roach may not have had formal training, but when Roach was in junior high school his mother joined the firefighter academy. It was a rare career move for a woman at the time, but she was eventually promoted to battalion chief. Through his mother, Roach learned about fire safety. That education would keep him safe as he found himself within 10 to 15 feet of flames that were 6 to 8 feet high.

As a volunteer in the early stages of the Wildcat Fire, he had no procedures, safety checklists or hours-of-service regulations to follow. He and fellow volunteers did what they could for as long as they could, providing various skills, including hauling and driving heavy equipment.

Eventually, the fire spread out of control, prompting government agencies to step in. When a wildfire becomes unmanageable and agencies move in, contractors with experience take over. Safety is just as high a priority as containing the fire. Wildfire support teams have the training to address both.

Efforts to contain the flames become more organized. Long days of putting out fires turned into a mandatory eight-hour break after 10 hours of work if volunteers wanted to continue with the agencies. Courses on Environmental Protection Agency laws were also part of the deal.

From Wild West to serious operation

When the agencies come in, support efforts take on a different tone. With safety procedures in place, contract workers offer support and let the firefighters get near the flames.

Sacramento-based Golden State Fire Support is one such contractor that hires drivers with a CDL to operate vehicles for wildfire support. Jason Alexander, operations manager at Golden State Fire Support, described a much safer and more calculated experience than that of Roach and the other volunteers.

When working for a contractor, drivers should not expect close encounters with flames. Alexander said approaching too close to the fire is a sign of a bad operation.

“Smoky and hot conditions are as close as you’ll get,” Alexander said. “Anything more than hot and smoky, you have done something wrong.”

Alexander once found himself in a position where the fire was on one side of an area and the firefighters needing support were on the other. Needing to get to the firefighters, Alexander was close enough to the wildfire to feel the heat. However, he said he never felt unsafe.

That’s because, unlike the volunteers during the Wildcat Fire, contract drivers have a checklist of safety procedures to go through before even being hired. In addition to possessing a Class B license with a tanker endorsement, drivers must also complete an eight-hour “fireline safety awareness” course. Personal protective equipment, such as a “fire shelter” bag, is used in case of emergencies.

While volunteers may put in 16-hour days for no pay, drivers for contractors have a more controlled work setting. Golden State Fire Support drivers typically work 12-hour days, with two days off after 14 days at $33 an hour. Seems like a long two weeks, but work is seasonal and is dependent on how quickly wildfires are contained. Work can last as long as several months and as short as a few days.

Alexander said the seasonal work for wildfire support brings in owner-operators and retirees looking for a little cash on the side. Truckers interested in vendor contracts for wildfire support should contact state and federal forestry agencies, including Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service. Companies that already have contracts may be looking for water tender operators and other driver-related jobs.