RUMSEY, Calif. – The smell of smoke hangs heavy in the air as the Soldiers and Airmen make their way through the burnt and barren landscape. Forcing their way through charred branches and soft dirt, they meet up with the rest of the crew, who arrived by helicopter a few hours earlier and are already at work clearing brush and roots.
This is the end of their four-hour hike up the steep slopes of Rumsey Canyon, but not the end of their day. After a brief lunch, the exhausted service members pick up their hand tools, joining the rest of their crew.
While some teams have over a year of experience fighting fires, for many of these Soldiers and Airmen, this is their first large fire since joining Joint Task Force Rattlesnake and completing their training in June. Although covered in sweat, soot, and ash, these task force newbies wouldn’t have it any other way.
“You’re completely beat at the end of the day but the feeling you get, it makes you want to do it the next day,” said U.S. Army Capt. Joseph Tabor, officer in charge of a Rattlesnake Fresno-based hand crew team.
Rattlesnake has been activated since early last week, often operating in 24-hour shifts as hand crews, to assist the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) in containing the LNU Lightning Complex fire in Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties.
The task force, comprised of service members from California State and National Guard, was launched April 2019. After a successful first year of the program, a new wave of trainees was hired last spring, completing their CAL FIRE training a mere two months prior. For new Rattlesnake crew members like U.S. Army Spc. William Hortua Jr., that means they have been able to put their training to work almost immediately.
“We’re cutting line, we’re separating the fire from the live brush, we do a 4-foot scrape to protect housing and prevent something from sparking it back up,” said Hortua, a hand crew team member with a Rattlesnake Fresno team.
The crew train with CAL FIRE, and upon completion, they work year-round clearing brush, performing controlled burns and other preventive measures. However, with fires raging throughout the state and over 1.8 million acres destroyed, their focus has shifted to aiding CAL FIRE with the containment of active wildfires.
“This is a very large fire, so we’ve been a contingency force and we’ve been sent out to the highest risk areas with the most fire activity to cut some hand lines directly against the fire line, basically prevent fires from impeding on some of the communities around here,” said Tabor.
Soldiers and Airmen with Rattlesnake must often work in dangerous conditions. Smoke, ash, long hours and rugged terrain are always a challenge when hiking to a wildfire in need of containing. The northernmost perimeter of the LNU Lightning Complex fire, located near Rumsey Canyon, was especially challenging for the teams.
Due to the rough terrain, over 50 Rattlesnake members were flown by UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and dropped on the ridge, while a crew of nearly 15 drove to the remote site at the base of the canyon, ensuring transportation back at the end of their shift. The crew then hiked a brutal 3.5 miles up to the ridge to tie in with the rest of the team, said Tabor.
Despite the physically challenging and often dangerous missions of Rattlesnake, the newest team members believe the difference they’re making for their fellow Californians makes the risks worthwhile, said U.S. Army Spc. Gabriel Valdez, a hand crew member with a Rattlesnake Fresno team.
“I joined the military to do something bigger and better than what I was doing prior, and I wanted to challenge myself and belong to an organization that I can take pride in.”