One Hot summer

By Yvonne Condes
Arizona Daily Wildcat
February 9, 1996

Benjamin W. Biewer
Arizona Daily Wildcat

UA student Robert DeLaBarcena, who has spent the last six summers fighting fires, works for the Coronado National Forest as a wildland firefighter.


Last summer's 100-year fire on Mount Lemmon was the worst Robert DeLaBarcena and Derrick Webber had ever seen.

The fire threatened to advance near the top of Mount Lemmon, where many privately-owned cabins are located.

"I have never been in a fire that kicked my ass. This one humbled me," says DeLaBercena, social sciences senior.

The two were part of the three-person crew that was the first on the scene. Their initial role was to supress and contain the fire.

With 100-foot ponderosa pines ablaze, the flames appeared as if they were "making a run at you," Webber says.

"It's scary. It gets hot and smoky. You can't breathe," he adds.

At one point the three men were waiting on a cliff until they could advance.

This is how the two college students spend their summer vacations.

"Some people rock climb ... for adventure. We fight fires," DeLaBarcena says.

DeLaBarcena assists Webber, former UA student and current Pima Community College student, who is an engine foreman supervisor. They work for the Coronado National Forest Service from April to July, depending on the length of the fire season.

He has been a firefighter for six years and used to work for Texas Canyon Hot Shots in Los Angeles. Hot shots are firefighters who also work in the summer fighting extreme forest fires.

Despite the possible dangers of the job, fear doesn't stop him.

DeLaBarcena says some people say "if he's not afraid, he's crazy."

"I don't get afraid. I must be crazy."

Preserving the outdoors became an interest to DeLaBarcena after he served in the conservation corps as a child. He became a firefighter after a tour in the army and now attends college on the GI Bill.

The start of the fire season cuts into Spring session so he takes classes by correspondence.

The fire season generally runs from April 15 to July 15, but if the summer rains come early then so does the close of the season.

If it is has been a dry season and fires continue through July, the season will be extended, if there is enough in their budget to continue, says Jim EtsHokin, forestry technician and administrative site technician.

During an extreme fire the crew is equipped with a fire shelter in their backpacks. The shelter protects up to 1000 degrees and there is enough oxygen for two minutes.

"The fire contains its own wind," DeLaBarcena says. "You have to hold (the shelter) down. We're trained to break it out in 15 seconds."

There is a "world of difference" between wildland firefighting and structural fires, EtsHokin says.

During a fire, one of their main duties is to stop the fire from spreading. Two ways they do this is by burnout and backfire. In a backfire another fire is set to burn in the direction of the original fire so it can be contained in one area and not spread, EtsHokin says.

Burnout is designed to cutout the "fingers" of the fire. This is so when the fire reaches that area it has already burned out, then the fire won't spread.

The station they work out of is near milepost 19 on the Mount Lemmon Highway. When there are not fires, the crews will work on the fire station or its vehicles, or work conserving the trails.

They have a 40-hour work week and an ideal work day runs 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. but "when we fight fires we can't say 'oh it's 6 o'clock,'" DeLaBarcena says.

Webber says he likes firefighting because of the excitement and the "good, hard, physical work."

"It's cool up there. I get to beat the heat," Webber says, referring to the almost 20 degree temperature change.

Webber is taking classes at Pima to become certified as an emergency medical technician because "firefighters could get hurt and I want to know what to do," he said.

The crew, which ranges every season from 12 to 14 members, is sometimes like a "large family, a bunch of guys and girls who sit around and tell stories," DeLaBarcena says.

His wife Gloria "worries too much" when he is working, he says, because if he is out on a fire he can't call her and tell her when he is coming home.

DeLaBarcena says that he regrets worrying her, but he does it because "I love it and I do it because I'm a hired gun."