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Contractors Also In Danger During Firefight

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

A bulldozer is used to cut a fire break as a helicopter flies over with a bucket of water to fight the flames of a massive wildfire Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017, in Sonoma, Calif.

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Fighting fires is a dangerous business, not only for the firefighters, but also for the dozens of private contractors who provide support.

CAL FIRE hires runners, pilots, bulldozer operators and water tender drivers.

This week, a Missouri man, 38-year-old Garret Paiz, died after rolling his water tender on Oakville Grade in Napa County.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, there were 16,000 vehicle collisions in fire zones nationwide in 2015. Those crashes caused more than 1,100 injuries.

Garrett McInnis owns three H2O to Go trucks in Grass Valley. He hires retired CAL FIRE employees and seasonal drivers who operate plows for Caltrans in the winter. But, sometimes, he must hire a new driver.

"As they get a little bit better at it, you give them a little bit more difficult job," he said. "It's like teaching your young child how to drive. If I have an inexperienced driver, we spend weeks going out learning where we're going, learning how to operate a heavy truck like this."

1017 17 bm Fire Hire Water Tender

Retired Cal Fire employee Rob Penn drives a water tender for H20 To Go out of Grass Valley.  Bob Moffitt / Capital Public Radio

He said CAL FIRE doesn't help with equipment training, but does supply eight hours of classroom training annually.

"Once we get on the fire line, we need to tie into the incident commander or the division group supervisor," McInnis said.

"That's very clear. That's your most important instruction is who am I working for and where am I supposed to be? Now, they have accountability for you. They know where you are and you know what they're telling you. It takes away the confusion." 

He said water tenders may refill their 4,000 gallon tanks a dozen times during a heavy firefight to keep engines supplied.

"If you've never done it before, the first few times are very exciting and you really have some self doubt like: what am I doing here? Am I in the right spot? If you do it on a regular basis, fortunately, I'm retired CalFire, so, I'm very comfortable in that situation."

CAL FIRE rules say drivers may operate a truck for no more than 12 hours at a time.

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