Santa Barbara- S County

Hand crews return from 4 days and nights out in remote Whittier Fire terrain

Inside look at hand crews

SANTA BARBARA COUNTY, Calif. - The most dangerous and grueling work during wildfires is done by hand crews.

Twenty-eight men and two women with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department just returned after four days and nights on the Whittier fire lines.

Hand crews go where engines and bulldozers can't reach, working alongside crews from all over the country, including the Los Padres Hot Shots.

Santa Barbara County Fire hand crews hiked up Gato Canyon through nearly inaccessible terrain to reach the last vestiges of the Whittier Fire, some portions were more than 100% slope.

Capt. Supt. Tyler Gilliam is in charge of Crew 1 and must make critical decisions to ensure his crew's safety.

Gilliam's crews tied into the blaze and worked their way around the perimeter removing fire fuels with their tools.

The firefighters carry everything on their backs and rely on helicopters to drop down supplies.

"Eventually we hike in so far, engines can't pump water," Gilliam said. "So that's when its strictly hand line and helicopters and that's where we get our water supply. They sling in gear and chainsaw mix to keep the tools going."

The crews work 24 hour shifts, only pausing to sleep, in what Gilliam called "the black", which is terrain that has already burned.

"Every person uses their tool to dig a spot in the dirt," said Gilliam. "The helicopter will sling in our sleeping bags and you dig yourself out a crevice and you sleep in your sleeping bag."

The danger lies in their proximity to the active flames and flare-ups.

"It might be burning close to us, as it did three nights ago," Gilliam said. "It made a run with small sundowners. The crew was in a safe spot. We knew fire had burned all around us."

After cutting fire lines, crews took advantage of favorable weather and performed a firing operation.

"When the fire gets into inaccessible terrain, we put fire on the ground, along lines we created or bulldozers created." explained Gilliam. "It gives us a clean black line that burns."

The job carries inherent risks, but Gilliam said crews are well-trained for all types of scenarios.

"In terms of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department and the Forest Service, they are some of the best in the world. With such diverse terrain and a long fire history, people work seamlessly now just because we've had so many large fires for years," Gilliam said. "It's an excellent system from incident management to hand crews."

When they returned from Gato Canyon, crews were looking forward to a shower, a hot meal at home with their families and a few days rest. But, those comforts will be short-lived, as they will likely be sent to fight another fire soon. Before their break, hand crews had worked 14 days straight, coming straight from the Alamo Fire to the Whittier Fire. 

"There a lot of people out there you can't see, but they love what they do," said Gilliam. "And they will do it again tomorrow for this community."

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