Staples, Office Depot plot for Tahoe opening |

Staples, Office Depot plot for Tahoe opening

It’s a dirty and desperate job battling America’s raging wildfires with a set of hand tools. But for the men and women who carry razor-sharp shovels to the front line, the work becomes a way of life.

“Last week, we worked through an 84-hour shift and slept out on the fire line for four days,” firefighter Matthew Weens said. “I think we put in almost 300 hours in the last two weeks.”

Weens belongs to one of the two 20-person hand crews from the Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. Cruising from fire to fire, the men and women firefighters call themselves the Bounty Hunters. Their bounty being the pile of hours that accumulate on their paychecks.

At $10 to $15 per hour, the pay isn’t particularly high but Weens said the money rolls in when the hours rack up.

“I finished my training on July 2, the next day I was sent on a fire,” Weens said during a break at the crew’s staging area at the Valhalla Estates on Tahoe’s south shore. “I’ve pretty much been out on fires since then.”

Lake Tahoe’s fire season has been light this year, but other parts of the West are being ravaged by out-of-control blazes.

Mark Johnson, the Forest Service’s fire management officer in the Lake Tahoe Basin, said fire conditions rotate in the United States in almost a counter-clockwise pattern.

“It starts out in Florida and moves to the southwest, then up to Idaho and Montana,” he said. “It ends in Southern California in January.”

The crews, which must commit as a unit to at least two weeks of work, can be called to any one of those locations.

“Right now, about 15,000 to 20,000 people have been mobilized to fight fires,” Johnson said. “It could be one of the busiest fire seasons in the last 10 years. We’ll probably end up mobilizing more people this year than in 1999, which was also a heavy fire season.”

This year, Nevada has been set ablaze. A lightning strike sent Tahoe’s crews to the Silver State’s heartland.

“We just came back from a fire in the Dixie Valley, east of Fallon,” said Aimee Lorincz, one of two women crew members. “We’ve had one day off – just enough time to eat, sleep, do laundry and go back out.”

They loaded their bus Friday as they waited for the call from dispatch that will take them back to Dixie Valley’s steep hillsides and rugged terrain.

“We go where the priority is,” Weens, 22, said. “And it changes by the minute – you have a set plan but your direction is always changing.”

Four days of classroom lecture and two days of field training makes anyone who can pass a physical test eligible for a position on the on-call fire crew.

For Lorincz the trip to Nevada’s burning hills is a side excursion from her normal job as a vegetation specialist in the Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe unit.

Breaking line at the leading edge of a fire is Weens only summertime job.

“I knew what I was getting into,” he said of the smoky work sites and nights spent sleeping on the ground. “It’s hard work but I like it and it’s difficult to find work that you like.”

The Forest Service will be recruiting for on-call fire crew members next spring. Call the on-call hotline at (530) 573-2777 for details.

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