Firefighters battle as brothers
June 29, 2007
When Eli Gray became a firefighter this year, he joined a brotherhood – literally.
He is one of four brothers working as firefighters with the Firestorm Unit based in Northern California.
His brother, Isaiah, is working his third fire season, while brothers Thor and Odin are both in their second season on the lines.
“This is what I expected,” Eli said. “I’ve heard my brothers talk about this, and I was as prepared as I could be.”
And the four look out for each other.
“It was tough at first, to be around them and deal with that,” Isaiah said. “But you get used to it and do everything you can to protect them.”
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The four brothers are among the 2,000 or so firefighters who have been called to South Lake Tahoe to battle the Angora fire.
The firefighters work 12- to- 15-hour shifts, then spend their off time at the Incident Command Center established at Heavenly Ski Resort. They can spend weeks away from their families making a home out of tents and portable toilets and showers.
“(The command center) smells like Port-o-Potties and pre-made food. And feet, it definitely smells like feet,” said Peter Greene, Firestorm Unit One firefighter.
Isaiah said, “Being gone from home is hard, but you feel the brotherhood with these guys. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses and it’s just an interesting experience.”
For most of the firefighters, they can’t image doing anything else, and because of that they adapt.
“I love doing what I am doing. That’s what drives me, the love of my job,” said Christian Loya, firefighter from Firestorm Unit One. “When I started, it was a little weird, but now my tent is my second home.”
It was a desire to take responsibility and work with people that drove Andrew Flaherty to become a firefighter.
Flaherty immigrated from England with the intention of becoming a preacher, but after finishing school decided God had other plans for him.
“I didn’t feel I was ready. I wanted a job to develop a high degree of personal responsibility that deals with people,” said Flaherty, a member of Firestorm Crew Three.
“That fire is pretty dramatic. For me it illustrates the awesome power of wildland fire.”
Captain Terry Hein, with the Tracy Fire Department in central California, has spent the last 34 summers fighting fires in several states.
“I love the job. I love that when you drive by, people show they appreciate you,” Hein said. “It’s a great job.”
That sense of community appreciation is what drives the local fire firefighters, like the members of the Lake Valley Fire Protection District.
“We live here and most of us grew up here,” said firefighter Matt Nerdahl. “This is the community we want to protect.”
That desire to serve the community and the challenge of working to prevent damage is part of what keeps firefighters going.
“We never know where we are going to be or what we will be doing,” said Steve Pevenage, Lake Valley firefighter. “One day it’s an inferno and the next day we are using our defibrillator to save somebody’s life.”
But knowing the community also means it affects them when property is lost.
“This is the largest fire in our district,” Pevenage said. “We’ve never lost 200 homes. We think it’s bad when we lose one home.”
But, they said, the victories are always better than the defeats.
“I do it for the satisfaction at the end of the day,” Loya said. “People ask if we get frustrated because we always see things burn down. No, because it’s about looking at the other side of the line and seeing what we saved.”