Overworked by increasingly large, frequent and destructive fires, firefighters in the American West no longer hesitate to share their exhaustion. On the heights of Twain, a tiny town nestled in the pines of northern California, a group of firefighters methodically water each block of vegetation blackened by the flames of the Dixie Fire and clear all they can with a chainsaw.
We must at all costs avoid a new outbreak of fire in this area so worn out by the drought that it acts like a powder keg. “We’ve been here for 14 days, no respite in prospect,” blows David Tikkanen, the captain of a state fire department, whose words are relayed by AFP. A grueling work of ant, in the middle of a blaze of more than 80,000 hectares.
5,400 men and women affected
A firefighter for thirty-five years, David Tikkanen has been fighting increasingly large fires, a phenomenon he attributes to climate change. “It is only a matter of time before we have fires 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, all year round in California,” criticizes the man in the red helmet with AFP. It makes it all more stressful and more dangerous. “
No less than 5,400 men and women are assigned to the Dixie Fire, the biggest fire to ravage the state this year. On the road which connects Twain to the town of Quincy, where the firefighters camp between two quarters, a succession of signs pays homage to all these “fire heroes”. But each year, their missions get longer.
“Your sanity is not going strong”
“After a while you start to twist a bit, your sanity is not strong,” laments Captain Tikkanen. To overcome this distress, “some turn to alcohol,” he admits. “Sometimes we need outside help,” he also adds without shame.
At the bottom of Twain Hill, Patrick Dellenback, 36, regains his strength after trying to turn off several heat sources. His unit came straight from the Bootleg Fire, a gigantic blaze in neighboring Oregon, and is on its twelfth day of mission. “We have support groups at work and if things are starting to not really go well, there are people we can talk to,” he says, his nose blackened with soot. I’m trying not to bother my wife too much with this. “
A few meters away, we see Captain Tikkanen again, this time behind the wheel of a car: one of the firefighters from his unit has been taken to the hospital. Nothing serious a priori but he must rush to his bedside, before going up these winding and smoky roads, and start working again. “It’s part of the job,” he sighs.