This piece is raw from the fireline, unfiltered insights from the souls standing between a 74,000-acre lightning complex fire and the coastal California enclave of Davenport, population 408. Names have been changed unless clearly identified.

The Battle for Davenport is at hand. This isn’t a war zone, but it sure feels like it.

Smoke plumes dot the inland horizon above empty streets, lined with ashy gutters, disturbed only by the occasional car zipping past brimming with worldly possessions.

The sun weeps red as it has become the eye of Sauron, crafting a sunset painted with destruction and death. Down the road a few miles, private contractors defend private interests.

In the fields and foothills behind Davenport, federal and state forces toil in tandem to fortify fighting positions on Warrenella Road, an old patchy service road that meanders into the Coastal Dairies National Monument.

Welcome to the southwestern tip of the 74,000-acre CZU Lightning Complex Fire, currently burning at 8% containment through parts of Santa Cruz and San Mateo County.

Firefighters and Hot Shots representing the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management and CALFIRE have toiled in tandem to build up fighting positions around the town, ready to stifle the devil that has come to Santa Cruz county.

With multiple complex fires burning simultaneously around the state, resources have started to run thin. The US Forest service defines a complex fire as “two or more individual incidents located in the same general area which are assigned to a single incident commander or unified command.”

With only so many crews and water trucks in the middle of a drought, and multiple lightning strike fires merging in the public lands like Voltron there can be only one way to kill the beast.

Fight fire with fire.

“Ridges, rivers and roads. That’s where we make our stand,” US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management Battalion Chief Michael D. Chiodini told me on a road on the ridgeline during a nighttime back burn. “No matter what is happening around the state, the Bureau of Land Management and CALFIRE are committed to keeping this wolf at bay with fire, machines and manpower.”

Backburning, for those of us who only wear firefighter gear for sexual purposes, is a wilderness firefighting technique that requires burning swatches of land ahead of the main blaze to bait and draw it into safe zones. Backburning also exhausts area fuel sources before the big show arrives.

A couple of klicks up the mountain, the town of Bonny Doon got leveled by walls of flames last week. Most of it that is. Tales are circulating about a group of residents and families that banded together to save large swatches of the community. Just over the hill, fires threaten major population centers leading to over 100,000 residents being forced to evacuate.

Unless you have been here, odds are you’ve probably never heard of the community of Davenport on California’s Central Coast. Remember the iconic boardwalk where Kiefer and the Corys turned all the little kiddies into blood-sucking pipe hitters? Davenport is 12.5 miles northwest of that spot along iconic Highway 1.

Blink and you’ll miss it.

With the whole state on fire, you can be forgiven for overlooking this one tiny place. That doesn’t make the danger any less real. This town still deserves the kind of people who work until the task is done.

Why are these colossal fires happening now? God decided to smite California two Sundays in a row with dry lightning. That paired with the state’s wilderness fire prevention strategy over the last decade has led to what some on the line call ‘the inevitable.’ The Golden State turned amber and ashen.

 

“It is a paramilitary approach to firefighting,” a USDI BLM Vet Crew member told me hours before disappearing into a dank wall of smoke and fog to protect a town he has never known. “A lot of us were not willing to give up the camaraderie and high-speed low drag lifestyle of being downrange when we wrapped up our enlistments, so we transitioned straight to this.”

On the fireline, no one asks about politics or the resident’s stance on funding the police or gender. All these bleary-eyed iron horses need is tasking and transport.

Let the soot faced and singed heroes who aren’t looking for press clippings take it from there.

They just want to cut, burn, and battle the devil’s breath. Maybe crack a joke, throw in a lip or get a quick sports update from the shabbily dressed journalist who trails them around from task to task like a puppy.Oh, and keep an eye out for the jalapeno MRE, those things can command a hefty price when resupply from basecamp is unavailable. Which it frequently is.

They work 16 hours on, 8 off. If they are lucky and the fire cooperates. And sleep, they all need sleep.

You may be wondering where they lay their heads if they ever get the chance. As a gear nut, I wanted to know what kind of tents they use.

“Hotshots don’t sleep in tents,” says Bruno of the Kern County Hot Shot Crew through his dark thick beard, laughing. “Not unless it’s raining—”

“—A lot,” chimes in another smokey faced badass. “And even then, never be the first one to bust out your bivy.”

No matter how shitty this situation is, it feels good to be around people like this again.

“These inmates got off fighting one fire and went back to basecamp to rest only to have to wake up and defend the camp from another fire,” the Chamberlain Creek Conservation Camp supervisor reported. “Now we are here, protecting these homes as if there are our own.”

Refugees speckle the west side of the Coast Highway, backing themselves up against ‘God’s Fire Break.’ The State cannot make them leave the zone, but once they leave they cannot come back.

Every morning a press conference catches the world up about efforts to extinguish the state, but comms are broken inside the zone. Information travels the old way, procured primarily by community elders that proactively approach control points. They are left to watch the hills, fear the shifting winds, and to drink warm beer. Power has been out for days in the zone; warm beer beats no beer.

Every time I drive through town they track me as neighborhood dogs track the paperboy.

Looters have steadily seeped past or around Highway Patrol checkpoints on the perimeter of the zones, making everything more dangerous.  For the cops, for the firefighters, for the residents who refused to evacuate…for me.

In the early days, the only people in the zone were here to help. Now the vultures have begun to land.

“Never been to Davenport before,” remarks Chuck, a Kern Valley Hot Shot and Marine veteran, during back burning operations along Coastal Diaries Ridge. “Looks like a nice place.”

Someday I will tell my children about The Battle for Davenport, about how a group of grizzled firefighters, feds, GWOT vets and convicts left blood and sweat in the hills to save some 400 residents and their homes. I will regale them with tales of how a few well-placed jokes proved my authenticity, bringing me closer to the fireline then I ever could have imagined. That’s the thing about people like us, we like to be on the line.

I will tell them about the USDI Bureau of Land Management’s Folsom Lake Veterans Crew, the Kern Valley Interagency Hot Shot Crew and Engine 3147 out of Midway Firestation in Taft. About CALFIRE crew 2383 and the inmates of the Chamberlain Creek Conservation Camp that cut critical fire lines at the end of Santa Vicente Street. I will tell them about the selfless service; grimy and gritty dark bags under the eyes service.

But we still don’t know if they succeeded or not. It could be days before the last embers fade.

 

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G.P. Scheppler
G.P. Scheppler is a U.S. Navy GWOT Veteran, freelance journalist, photographer, Rebele Journalism Scholar, podcaster, water survival instructor, adaptive surfer, and service dog advocate. He is a former surface Search and Rescue Swimmer, VBSS breacher and has developed & instructed training curriculum for federal, state and regional agencies. Schep cofounded The Coastal Athlete Program (CAP) with his business partner and former FMF corpsman Joe ‘Doc’ Jackson in 2017. CAP was launched to prepare clients for careers in rescue and special amphibious communities. Prior to CAP, Schep founded a tactical strength and conditioning company - Apex Predator Athletics - in 2013. With his service dog Posey, Schep studied Journalism at Cabrillo College, and served as the sports editor of the Cabrillo Voice.

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