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Life on the California fire line, as the family waits back home

Fighting fires in California means danger, exhaustion, and days away from family. A spirit of service – and all the public appreciation – helps a lot.

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On duty at the Chico, Calif., fire house on the evening of Aug. 29, Capt. Mike Lopez got a call asking him to get ready to leave for Southern California.

Three hours later, Lopez was driving one of four engines, each with four "strike teams", down California's I-5 toward La Cañada, where smoke was billowing over the town and casting ruddy sunsets from Las Vegas to Denver.

"I had planned to take my wife and kids camping over Labor Day weekend, but they all know my job takes precedence," says Mr. Lopez, a 20-year veteran firefighter.

The four strike teams drove all night, arriving at 8:30 a.m. and were promptly sent to bed to be ready for evening line duty. Line duty includes raking, digging, and taking chain saws to unwieldy chaparral underbrush – in this case, on steep canyon walls.

Because the fire broke out in Angeles National Forest, the US Forest Service is in charge, and it dictates 12-hour shifts for the firemen. Lopez says he prefers California Dept. of Forestry and Fire's 24-hour shifts because it means more time to rest between shifts.

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