To many residents of South Lake Tahoe and Colorado Springs, Colo., they're heroes. But for the U.S. Forest Service Meeks Bay Fire Station Engine 43 crew, who helped save homes during the Waldo Canyon fire, they're just doing their job.
Of course, it's always nice to receive praise from your boss and that's just what the crew got when they met and shook hands with President Barack Obama.
The team just returned to Tahoe last week after a 26-day mission that took them through Nevada and Utah and on to fight fires in Colorado and Wyoming.
The group of five - four from South Lake Tahoe and one from Truckee - drove to Colorado last month as part of a five-engine strike team composed of units from the El Dorado National Forest and the Lake Tahoe Basin. Shortly after arriving in Grand Junction, Colo., David Deleon, Matt Read, Jorge Alcaraz-Lopez, Lindsey Dubs and Jeff Dube were sent to the Colorado Springs Waldo Canyon fire, arriving on site on June 26.
Throughout that day and well into the early morning of the next, the team worked in a suburban subdivision in which many of the buildings were packed together and already on fire.
"It was chaos to say the least, with a bunch of structures already going up," said Read, an assistant fire engine operator.
The crew was looking to save whatever structures it could while still keeping the team safe. In USFS firefighting lingo, they were in a wildland-urban interface area, where buildings abut wildfire-prone land. According to Read, it can be some of the most dangerous firefighting there is.
"I think a dangerous thing with this urban interface is unknowns in people's houses. You're trying to protect a house and, if the garage catches, there's propane tanks and gasoline and all that hazard material. On that night, I don't know how many times we were cooling off propane tanks," said Dube, a seasonal firefighter.
The Waldo Canyon fire, like Angora, threatened hundreds of structures, forcing firefighters out in front of the fire to prevent the flames from spreading to more houses. In Colorado Springs, 364 houses burnt but many were also saved, said Dubs, a seasonal firefighter. The Engine 43 crew managed to protect a cluster of homes in the subdivision that night by dousing the roofs with water and engaging with the head of the fire.
This is Dubs' first season fighting fires with the USFS, and she said it was quite the experience - intense, hot and exciting, but not scary.
"It was the most intense and most fire all at once. Just going through those houses really quickly. And sometimes so fast you have to take a step back because it's hot and we only have so much water on our engine," Dubs said.
The team finished its 21-hour work day around 4 a.m. on June 27. A few days later, they returned to the subdivision for after-action review and to see the site in the light.
The crew was about to leave when they got a call from the strike team leader asking if they were ready to meet their boss. Deleon, the team's engine boss, thought that that meant the incident commander or maybe a metonymic representative of the public. But when the presidential motorcade pulled up and men in plain clothes with ear pieces stepped out of the SUV with tinted windows and flags, the team knew they were in for a surprise.
"Out pops a guy with glasses, looks one way and then the other way, and then - boop - out pops Obama. And I was like, 'Is that really him?' It was pretty cool,' Deleon said.
"It was nice he came out and recognized the guys on the ground, the ground-pounders. It was really nice of him to come out and shake our hands and take a minute out of his schedule, say hi to everybody and thank us for all the hard work we did," Deleon said.
News coverage of the Engine 43 team might have trickled off after they met the president, but their work did not. The crew drove north to Wyoming to help with the Oil Creek fire and work in the Medicine Bow National Forest before finally retuning to the Lake Tahoe Basin last Thursday.
It was Dube's longest time away from home fighting fires, and he admitted it can be a strain.
"It's very hard. This is your job, you signed up for it, and a couple weeks go by and you're like, 'This is my job.' You have to keep reminding yourself how much you love your job. When it's all over, you will be going home," Dube said.
As cool as meeting the president might have been, both Deleon and Read agree that meeting Obama fits into a bigger picture for the USFS a a whole. Just a few weeks ago, Obama offered healthcare to seasonal firefighters like Dubs and Dube.
"It can get brushed under the rug how much work we do on the fires. It's been a very beneficial thing to have us seen in that light by the public. It's been a pretty awesome experience," Read said.