“It isn’t mandatory to go on these calls on our days off, and even though we’re paid firefighters we’ll still go."
Last Thursday, December 10, the extreme Santa Ana winds that reached up to 60 miles per hour in Tijuana, Tecate, and Rosarito fanned wildfires which consumed four large ranches, according to Civil Protection of Baja California.
One of these ranches was close to the popular hiking route of El Cerro del Coronel in Primo Tápia in the Playas de Rosarito municipality. There Rodolfo Espinoza Mena, a 25-year-old firefighter with 12 years of experience, worked to put out the fire that threatened a suburban neighborhood.
“That day I had a call from my boss at 7:00 am to see who could go help with this fire. It was my day off, but I went as a volunteer,” Espinoza said. “It isn’t mandatory to go on these calls on our days off, and even though we’re paid firefighters, we’ll still go. In our shifts we work 24 hours straight from 9 am to 9 pm and rest 48 hours. For this wildfire we worked for approximately 15 hours straight.”
Espinoza went prepared with nuts, seeds, oat bran energy bars, and lots of drinking water to avoid heat stroke. He noted that the lack of water in these rural areas is their main issue because they must have around 150 gallons to fight the fire.
“The ranchers were the ones who gave us water to refill our personal stash."
“The ranchers were the ones who gave us water to refill our personal stash. Due to the shortage we had to use shovels to put out the flames with some earth.” They had to work strategically because this was not a normal fire. “Usually, a wildfire has a structure – the back, the sides, and the head, which is the direction the fire is heading. But in this fire we had it all around us, and it had five heads, behind, in front, and in El Coronel itself,” Espinoza added.
According to Espinoza the best way to go is to let certain areas burn and control the expansion of the fire by clearing the land of any flammable material, work that lasts for hours. “Even leaves blown from trees on fire can start another. Also, animals like wild rats and rabbits. When they burn on fire before dying, they run, and these animals, unfortunately spread the fires.”
"When wild rats and rabbits burn on fire before dying, they run and spread the fires.”
The firefighters' strategy began to take effect around 6 pm, 19 hours since the fire started at 11 pm Wednesday – and almost 12 hours since Rodolfo started his shift on his day off. When he arrived back at the station at 7 pm, he and his colleagues had to report any damage to their wildfire combat equipment, and those that volunteered had to prepare everything to come to work for the next day.
Espinoza said that he gets the equivalent of $554 a month in pay but sometimes they have to take from their own pockets to buy safety equipment – helmets, specialized jackets, pants and boots. But the population they serve and their own families make it up to them with moral support, directly helping to contain wildfires, giving them food and water or donating tools to the stations.
While they worked, people offered them food or left it at the station: handmade burritos with eggs and jam, beans with cheese and meat, sandwiches, and electrolyte drinks. “There are people that write notes on the food like, ‘Take care,’ ‘Your family is waiting for you’ or ‘We need you,’” he stated. “These comments help us to deal with the mental or emotional problems we might have. As a second-generation firefighter my parents are used to the concern of me not coming back. But my mom always thanks God when I return, just as she did with my dad.”