Brushfire season on the West Coast is still raging, but 2020 has already seen four of the five largest wildfires on record in California. Over 3 million acres have gone up in flames, killing 26 people and destroying nearly 6,300 structures. And conditions are ripe for more: A rainy winter followed by a hot, dry summer has made much of the state into a tinderbox. What is it like to work as a firefighter during these unprecedented conditions knowing that, at any moment, you could be deployed to a deadly blaze for days on end? Kerry Crivello joined the Los Angeles Fire Department in 2017 and works both as a firefighter and a paramedic. She lives in L.A. with her 6-year-old son and dog. Here’s how she gets it done.
On a typical morning:
I work ten to 12 shifts a month, and they’re usually 24 hours long. When I’m starting a shift, I get up at 4:15 a.m. That gives me time to go for a run with my dog, shower, leave a note for my son, and then get to the station. We want to be ready to dispatch at 6 a.m. if necessary, so we’ve got to get in and check the equipment and get all our gear ready to go. The expectation is that we can get the call and be pulling out of the station in 60 seconds.
I get off work at 6 a.m. the next day. I have a ten-minute drive home, and that’s my peaceful moment to decompress. I’m a single mom with a 6-year-old, so I’m instantly on duty when I walk in the door. Normally, I would drop him off at school and then have a little downtime to go for a run or take a nap. But these days, I have to get him going on virtual school. There are beds at the fire station, so I usually do get to sleep a little bit during my shift. But if I’ve been up fighting a fire all night, I’m exhausted, and everything is harder. The transition can be abrupt. About a year ago, I had to tell a mother that her child, who was close to the age of mine, had died. Then, less than 30 minutes later, I was trying to cook breakfast and read books to my own kid. It takes a lot for your brain to absorb that. It helps me to go for a run and process everything. Mental health is huge in this job.
When I’m at work, my mom takes care of my son, which is great, because they have a really good relationship. I can call her at 5 a.m. and say, “I’m going to be on a brushfire. I’ll see you in a few days.”
On fighting fires for days at a time:
Last year, I was on the initial dispatch to two of the fires up by the Getty Center in the hills of L.A. We got the call at 4 or 5 a.m., and we just rolled straight out of bed and threw on our gear. From the freeway, we could see the hills on fire on either side, and it was pretty clear that we were going to be gone for a few days. So everybody starts calling somebody. I was texting my mom, “Hey, I need you to pick my son up and take him to school. I don’t know when I’ll be able to charge my phone. I don’t know when I’ll have service. I’ll be in touch when I can.”
We were up on the hill actively fighting fire for the first 12 hours or so. Then we hiked around, watching for spots lighting off again. We had our first meal at 6 or 7 p.m. that night. Someone brought up In-N-Out burgers. And then we kept hiking, fighting the fire all night. It was about 36 hours before they got another company to come up, relieve us, let us go back to the station, shower, get a change of clothes.
In a brushfire, a lot of what you’re doing is really just hiking, especially at first: getting people with saws and shovels up a mountain to cut lines and create a firebreak, or getting hose lines around the fire if that’s feasible. Sometimes the fire’s too big or moving too quickly for us to get water around it, and we’re mostly relying on water drops from helicopters. On these larger campaign fires, the ones that last weeks, it’s a huge operation. There’s a base camp, and you come down and they have people cooking for you and trailers where you sleep and shower.
On being close with her colleagues:
You get very comfortable with your crew. If you’re fighting a fire and you have to pee, I suppose it’s easier for guys, but you try to find yourself a corner in the bushes and make sure there isn’t smoldering material under you. We already basically live together at the fire station, so there’s an understanding of respect and privacy. But it’s different from a lot of professions in the sense that when we’re out there doing our job, our personal needs take a back seat. Of course you’re hungry; of course you’re tired; of course you have a headache and you want to go home and see your family. But what we’re doing is more important right now. It’s refreshing. Everybody puts themselves second for a little bit, and we work together.
On the gear she carries with her:
Each of us has a brush pack issued to us. It has a CamelBak in it that we’re supposed to keep filled and ready at all times. I also keep bags of trail mix, a couple protein bars, ChapStick, and sunscreen. You can put more in your brush pack if you want, but the more you have in there, the more you’re carrying, and we’re already carrying a ton of weight.
We also carry emergency fire shelters, which we all hope to never need. It looks like a tinfoil sleeping bag, and it will offer one more layer of protection if the fire turns on you. You only use it in a Mayday situation. There was a fire about seven years ago in Arizona, where 19 brush firefighters died, and they were all found in their fire shelters. So it won’t necessarily save you, but it’s a little bit of extra protection that could keep you alive as the fire burns over you.
On fighting off panic:
We’re all trained to manage fear and stress in the fire academy. You’re put in a lot of situations that make you uncomfortable: You’re too hot; you can’t see anything; you’re in the dark; it’s hard to breathe. How do you keep calm if you get stuck in a corner? We’re taught different ways to slow down our breathing. The technique we learn is called BOA: breathe, observe, act. Take a deep breath to calm the body down. Look around, observe my situation, observe my options. Then figure out the best course of action and make sure everyone else is on the same page. It helps that there’s a ton of trust. Normally, we’ve all got our heads on a swivel looking out for each other.
On an average workday:
We have three ambulances and a fire engine out of our station, so we’re pretty busy. Between doing all the maintenance on the rigs every day and cleaning and working out, plus running all the calls, there’s not much downtime.
Every station has a gym, and it’s part of our job to exercise and stay fit and strong. We do circuits as a group, if we can, so there’s a team environment. We rotate through who cooks. When it’s your turn, you can cook whatever you want, but it’s a pretty harsh crowd. If you cook something and people don’t like it, you’re definitely going to hear about it. But a lot of the guys are awesome cooks. We have a smoker, so we’ll smoke some tri-tip and make salad and sweet potatoes to go with it — stuff like that. These days, we’ve been eating out a lot more, just to limit the amount of shared space and germs at the station and to support the businesses that are having a hard time right now.
On being one of the few women in the LAFD:
The LAFD is about 3 percent women. I’ve been at stations where I was the only girl out of 48 people. Right now, there are actually two other women at my station, which is a lot. We have a different bathroom, but we still share a bedroom with all the guys. It’s just one big dorm. It takes a little getting used to at first, but we have very much a family dynamic. It’s sort of like a brother-sister thing. Everybody’s respectful of your space.
On why she wanted to become a firefighter:
A lot of firefighters grow up wanting to be one, but I came to it differently. I was in grad school for psychology, working as an EMT to pay for it, and I realized that I preferred my EMT work to what I was doing in my clinical hours, doing counseling. So I became a paramedic and was assigned to work out of a fire station, and I just fell in love with it. But I used to hate feeling left out on calls. I’d be parked outside a structure fire waiting for them to bring a patient out to me, or I’d be on the road as they were doing a cliff rescue waiting for them to bring someone up from a car that went over. I wanted to be a part of all of it. So I applied to the fire academy.
On refusing to be helpless:
We see so much death every day, and it puts everything in perspective. When you leave work and the grocery store is out of the kind of milk you like, is that really such a big deal? Another thing to remember is that when people call 911, there’s no other option. We’re it. We can’t say “I don’t know. Call someone else.” If someone is injured on the third floor of a building and every door is locked, we can’t just say, “Eh, the doors are locked.” You put a ladder up, break a window, or figure something out. You’re not allowed to be helpless, and I think that’s a mentality we carry over into our normal lives.