Firefighters battle the Little Pine Fire in extreme conditions

PRIEST RIVER, Idaho– Temperatures are smoldering this week, and for firefighters hard at work on the Little Pine Fire in North Idaho, their challenge has risen to a whole new level—one they’ve never experienced in this region before.

In an effort to work smarter, they took a drone up above the fire to determine the highest concentrations of heat, so those firefighters can better focus their efforts. Regardless, any amount of time in this historic heatwave is grueling.

It’s not unusual for these firefighters to camp out in tents overnight for the few weeks they spend battling wildfires, but it is unusual just how warm our overnight temperatures are.

“They’re carrying a 45-pound pack, a tool, glove, chainsaw; it’s a lot of stuff to have on you, black earth, up a hill,” said Michael McManus, commander for the North Idaho Type 3 Incident Management Team, “Very little relief.”

These are the work conditions for 150 firefighters who are putting in 16-hour days, in triple-digit temps.

“We’re really aware of the heat, we’ve instituted… it’s a 20-person crew so if 10 are working, 10 are taking a break,” said McManus.

At 190 acres, they’ve got it 65% contained, so as McManus puts it, they’re not in “high tempo mode” — but the journey ahead is long.

It’s likely they’re going to be watching this fire for pretty much the whole summer. So what that in mind, they’re brainstorming.

“Looking at sleeping the crews inside at night if we can get some air conditioning, and also what they call a bimodal shift, start early, take breaks in the day and work into afternoon,” explained McManus.

Their first priority is the safety of these firefighters.

“We’re very aware of conditions where they’re working and we’re doing what we can to give them the best chance of success at the power line,” said McManus.

That means hydration, electrolytes, nutrition, frequent shade breaks, and rest. A lot of the resources they need—ice, water, Gatorade—were actually difficult to find because the IRONMAN triathlon yesterday bought up much of those exact items.

The physical fight they’re in is tough enough, but for many of these firefighters, the unprecedented conditions create a mental challenge too.

“Everyone’s in it together,” said McManus. “It’s early in the season so I think that helps. That’s been at the forefront of our minds quite a bit.”

Every one of us can make a difference for these front-line workers.

“So if we can limit any risk of these fires, be smart with your camp fire, probably don’t even have them right now, the fireworks thing, probably not the best time to be doing that,” said McManus.

The absolute best thing we can do as a community right now is to take extra precautions to prevent the risk of starting new fires.

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